Family ties help EMS THON group, Four Diamonds families fight for cancer cure

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Lynn and Butch Brewer received the application in 2004 to become a Four Diamonds family they admitted they didn’t know exactly what it would mean for them.

It wasn’t until two years later, when their son Troy lost his battle with cancer after first going through remission, that they surveyed the hundreds of Penn State students who came to his funeral and it became clear.

“What was very unique and touching for us is that there was a Penn State bus in the parking lot and that so many students had come to the service,” said Lynn Brewer. “Troy’s cancer came back (in 2005) and students from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) had visited Troy a few times and connected with how we were feeling. They genuinely took an interest in our family, cared about our family and they became our family.”

In 2004, the Brewers became EMS’ first Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon (THON) family, and they continue to help the college’s other three families — the Woods, Hollingers and Schmidts — also impacted by pediatric cancer.

Ask any one of the college’s roughly 60 THON members, officially called the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Student Council Benefiting THON, and it’s easy to see why it’s called a family. They know who’s off to college, who’s having a birthday, who’s up for a game of laser tag. And, on the worst days, who’s struggling in a fight for their life.

A family struggle

The Brewers, who have another son, Tommy, said at first they struggled to find their role in the THON family after Troy died, but soon discovered they could be a mentor to the other families while continuing to tell Troy’s story, keeping his memories alive. 

“Even though we don’t have a child for them to connect with, they have our memories that they connect with, they connect with us, they connect with our grandchildren,” said Lynn Brewer. “It’s very healing because I get to tell Troy’s story over and over and over and it helps them understand why they’re a part of THON. We get to make new friends because they’re all a part of our family.”

Troy Brewer’s story is easier to tell the generations of EMS THON members thanks to “Hunt of a Lifetime,” a documentary made for the family that chronicles Troy's hunt for mule deer in Oregon in 2005.  

“It’s special to us because I get to play this DVD and hear his voice again,” said Lynn Brewer. “And it seems like every time we host a canning or canvassing trip these students come and they always ask about Troy, and they want to see this video.”

More than a Marathon

Victoria Christensen, the executive director of EMS THON, said the 46-hour dance marathon is really the finish line of a yearlong race. The Schreyer Scholar and junior majoring in materials science and engineering said fundraising efforts, including canning, canvassing, various sales and website donations, begin in September. Fundraising last year netted more than $9.7 million overall with more than $71,000 from EMS. In 2016, EMS ranked third in funds raised among general organizations, and ranked first the previous five years. EMS THON has raised more than $600,000 since 2004.

THON begins Friday at the Bryce Jordan Center.

“I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into my freshman year until I went to THON. I met all the families and I did all the canvassing and canning but in the back of your head you’re like OK, what am I doing this for?” said Christensen. “But then you walk into the BJC and you see all these families and THON members. Seeing that every single one of these people raised money for this one cause, it gives you chills.”

Maintaining family ties is an important part for EMS THON members. They spend weekends at each of the families’ homes, offering support while continuing fundraising efforts. They use Facebook, email and a website to keep in touch, often planning trips that bring the families together. They’re lucky, said Christensen, because all four families live in the same region.

A growing family

Although EMS THON is considered a smaller organization, it’s one of about 10 organizations that has adopted four families. The fact that EMS THON was chosen to adopt a fourth family in 2015, members say, is a testament to how hard they work to maintain family ties.

“We’ve excelled at fundraising while continuing a strong familial bond with our families,” said Lydia Scheel, a senior majoring in energy business and finance. “In most charities, you don’t get a chance to meet the people who it affects, and THON is clearly a different kind of organization. Our members often meet our families even before they begin fundraising.”

Like most families, a solid foundation is the reason they’ve been able to continue to thrive while maintaining a support network. That’s a tradition that began with the Brewers and continues today. Scheel said feedback from the families helps them remain affixed to the goal of offering emotional and financial support and ensuring funding for critical research.

“I know that our effort makes a big difference to the families,” said Scheel. “I’ve known most of them for four years now and it matters to them. It matters to them that college students are willing to take time out of their lives to do this, to fundraise and to visit their families. It’s touching to see this.”

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Last Updated February 16, 2017