sunflower signs THON 2019

Sara Thomas, Anna Schade, Ben Hammel and Cathy Hammel pose with their sunflower signs in the Bryce Jordan Center during THON 2019.

Ben Hammel was involved in Penn State THON all four years he attended the university, and he has come back to State College every year since his graduation to attend the dance marathon.

However, THON means something different for Hammel now than it did when he was a Penn State student.

Hammel said his 25-year-old cousin died of kidney cancer in July 2018, and her death has changed the way he sees the dance marathon.

"When I first got involved in THON, we didn't have any cancer in the family," Hammel, a graduate of the class of 2015, said. "It didn't really hit home as much."

Tucked in the nosebleed section of the Bryce Jordan Center, Hammel, his parents and cousins held up sunflower signs for their cousin, Victoria Ondo Burnfin.

The sunflowers — Burnfin's favorite flower — symbolize her.

As Hammel and his other family members celebrate Burnfin's life in the stands, Hammel's brother, Matt, a Penn State Behrend senior, is a dancer on the floor — wearing a sunflower necklace in honor of Burnfin.

The family's involvement in THON doesn't end there, though. Hammel's cousin, Heather Thomas, was a THON Dancer Relations captain in 2016. On Sunday, she will return to the stage to perform during the line dance recap.

The family found out about Burnfin's cancer diagnosis in 2014, right before that year's THON. Hammel and Thomas, who both attended the university at the time, were "devastated" by the news. However, they pushed forward.

"This is what THON is about," Hammel said in recollection of his thoughts at the time. "That's why we're doing it."

Before she died, Burnfin lived an accomplished life — Hammel said she graduated from college, earned her master's degree and was married.

"She's with us all the time," Hammel's mother, Cathy, said.

Hammel and his family plan to attend THON every year in honor of Burnfin. The family traveled from parts of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia just to attend.

"THON means more now," Sara Thomas, Hammel and Burnfin's cousin, said. "Now we understand."

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