Growing up, Alison Willie had no connection to Penn State. Now, nothing could be further from the truth.
“Nothing, we had no attachment to Penn State, never had anyone go here, nothing,” Willie said of her childhood on the west coast. “No one in my family had even been to Pennsylvania, so it was kind of a big jump, but now it’s like our second home.”
This transformation happened under unfortunate circumstances for Willie, currently a sophomore at University Park in the College of Engineering who coincidentally grew up in an Oregon town called Happy Valley.
Her father and maternal grandfather were each diagnosed with kidney cancer within a year of each other a decade ago. This was all new to Willie’s family, and since they didn’t find many treatment options, they lobbied for more Medicare coverage of kidney cancer.
They spoke with an Oregon congressman, who told Willie and her family that kidney wasn’t a “popular form of cancer,” so there wasn’t much chance for increased funding.
"It was a pretty horrible thing to say to parents with kids who were 7 and 11,” Willie said. “At that point, my mom was like, ‘OK, we're doing something,’ because nobody else was doing anything."
The family learned about the Penn State football team’s Lift for Life event, a yearly fundraiser for kidney cancer research, through a newsletter and began sending cards to a few of the players. Jordan Norwood, a State College, Pa. native, wrote back to Willie, prompting her and her family to write even more letters. All of this led to them visiting Penn State for the first time in 2007 for Lift for Life, where Willie set out 17 hand-made scarves, asking for donations.
Since it had been about five years since she had knit, the scarves “were a little rough on the edges,” Willie said, laughing. Still, the spirit of what she was trying to do came through. Two of the scarves netted a $100 donation each, which she gave directly to the football team’s fundraising effort. †
"No one’s out there doing anything for kidney cancer; the guys here, with their event, are the largest fundraiser for kidney cancer worldwide,” Willie said. “They do a great job and they're not only students, they're student-athletes and they're putting this on, as well."
She later toured the campus, saying that Penn State’s ability to produce successful engineers, especially women engineers, helped her make the decision to attend the University.
As for the $200 that the scarves brought in, the money wasn’t just a donation, it also served as inspiration. She began selling the scarves every year at Lift for Life and donating all of the profits to the team’s cause.
Willie recruited friends and family members to help. She even taught her mom how to knit. The following year, Willie and her family had made more than 300 scarves in the months leading up to the Blue-White game, where the scarves are also sold yearly.
What makes this connection all the more surreal is her hometown.
“It’s pretty crazy, especially since I’m from Happy Valley, Ore.,” Willie said. “It’s just kind of weird, like it was meant to be.”
While both Willie’s father and grandfather have recovered from their
cancer, the family continues its involvement in raising money for Lift For
Life. Willie estimated her family’s raised close to $40,000 so far, with no signs of stopping. She said they stockpile scarves, currently having around 100 that are waiting in stock for when space opens at McLanahan’s, the only local retail outlet that sells the scarves.
In addition to being sold every year at Blue-White and Lift for Life, Willie occasionally sells them elsewhere, such as at last month’s Penn State men’s basketball game against Iowa, which was billed as “Uplifting Athletes Day” at the Bryce Jordan Center. The scarves aren’t sold online, Willie said, because then they’d have to make the scarves a uniform size and that just wouldn’t be any fun.
She’s kept in touch with former players and continues to meet new ones, indicating there’s no reason for her to stop the fundraising effort that helped lead her to Penn State.
"It's a really good thing to know something uplifting when you're dealing with something that's bad, and that's why we got involved, because it's so much easier to deal with something bad when you have something positive,” Willie said. “We've worked as hard as we can to make the biggest difference we can and it's worked because now there are more treatments."
For more information on Alison’s story and her family’s scarves, visit their Facebook page.