Ryan Clark

Paying it forward

Ryan Clark uses his childhood experience to help THON
By: Marissa Carney

With just under two months until THON 2015, an air of excitement is building. Penn State students all across Pennsylvania are working hard to keep the donation money pouring in. Dancers are preparing themselves mentally and physically, and THON families are counting down the days until they can join in the fun.

THON, of course, is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world donating all proceeds to The Four Diamonds Fund, which in turn benefits the Hershey Medical Center and its young patients battling pediatric cancer. The 46-hour no-sitting, no-sleeping dance marathon is the culmination of a year’s worth of fundraising work.

Ryan Clark, a first year student from Collegeville, Pennsylvania, grew up as a Penn State fan and always knew he would attend the University. He wound up at Altoona studying actuarial science. It wasn’t just that he liked the University because of the football team or because of its prestige. There was another, more personal draw, and that was the THON organization. You see, at just six years old, Clark was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a blood cancer most common in children. He’d only been feeling sick for about a week and had already been to the pediatrician, but that doctor wasn’t sure what, if anything, was wrong. He was involved with Tae Kwan Do and his mother thought maybe he’d gotten hurt during practice. But his symptoms progressed rapidly. “I remember going to the hospital at night because it had gotten to the point where I couldn’t sleep I was in so much pain.” Just a few days later, Clark was diagnosed. He was in Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for a little over a month and on chemotherapy for thirty-nine months. “There are bits and pieces that I remember of the whole thing. I’m kind of thankful that I had it so young and don’t recall everything.”

During the time Clark was being treated for his illness, his father, John, quit his job at IKEA to take a position as the executive director of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Connecticut Chapter. “I had a personal need to help pay back. Without the help of LSS, my son might not have survived his diagnosis,” he says.

When he was 16, Clark wanted to participate in the Society’s Man & Woman of the Year competition, a national effort to raise funds for leukemia and lymphoma blood cancer research. At 13 years old, Clark was chosen as the Connecticut LLS Chapter’s Boy of the Year, a human face providing inspiration and motivation to participants during the competition weeks. He spent time going to events, meeting people, and shaking hands. Now it would be his turn to step to the other side of the campaign and do what he could for other children fighting the disease. Plus, “My dad had done it the year before because he worked for the Society, and I just wanted to raise more money than him and beat him,” laughs Clark. And beat him, he did, managing to raise $27,000 to his father’s $18,000. Clark recalls the laborious letter-writing involved, the endless collection jars, and fundraising dinners. “I went to a small Catholic school, and we had a dress-down day. That brought in $3,000 alone.” There was also a dinner with Bill O’Brien, former head coach of Penn State’s football team, to bring in money. “That was awesome. I was just sitting there at the dinner table having a normal conversation with the coach.”

Seeing his father’s involvement in the LLS made an impression on Clark as he grew older. “In junior high I think I was still a bit unappreciative. I understood why he was doing it, but I didn't realize how much it meant to him until later.” And that’s when Clark says it became as important to him as his father to offer something of himself that could make a positive difference. “I like to make as big an impact as I can, because I don’t want other kids to have to go through what I did. It’s obviously not a good experience.”

Right around the time Clark graduated from eighth grade, he was given a clean bill of health. He remains in remission now. “To a point cancer was pretty much my life. I was young and didn’t understand a lot, which is good, but now, I have a perception on life that you can’t get any other way. And that’s being more thankful and really appreciating everything I have.”

When it came time to choose a college, the idea of becoming involved with THON and doing good for pediatric cancer was one of the deciding factors in Clark attending Penn State. “THON raises money for a specific experience I had as a child. With THON, I’m hands on, and I can see where the money goes.” Clark made sure to attend the organization’s first meeting of the academic year in the fall and immediately submitted an application. He is now the captain of donor alumni relations, soliciting donations from corporate sponsors. “It has definitely taught me persistence. A lot of corporations will say, ‘No, we can’t do that,’ so you have to be able to keep asking for what you want even though people don’t always give it to you.” Clark says he enjoys THON and has a lot of fun being involved. He’s met Altoona’s THON child, Collin Kratzer, a seven year old boy fighting a brain tumor. Clark says he hasn’t been able to spend a lot of time with him but can see a lot of himself in Kratzer and his situation. That drives him harder in his work with THON. After all, “Without the help of others and organizations like THON, I might not be here today.”

Clark remains optimistic about his health, choosing to live without fear of a relapse. “I think about it every once in a while, but not too seriously. My mom always says if you can’t do anything about something, if it’s out of your control, then don’t worry about it. So, I’ve kind of adopted that, and I don’t stress over it.”

THON 2015 takes place February 20-22 at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College. Students hope to surpass last year’s record-breaking total of more than $13 million. Clark already imagines his pride at helping accomplish such a feat during his first year with the organization. “I will be honored to be a part of such an impactful group of young men and women.”