Penn State alumni network, THON community remember Kayla Nakonechni

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in AlumnInsider, the Penn State Alumni Association's monthly member e-newsletter. You can click here for information on becoming a member, and you can follow the Alumni Association on Facebook and Twitter for more stories and updates on events.

Several weeks ago, the Alumni Association’s Philadelphia Chapter started a new tradition at its annual Liberty Ball, an event that raises money for THON. To carry on the memory of Kayla Nakonechni, the Knight Award was introduced and presented to the Nakonechni family on Kayla’s behalf.
“She was always smiling.”

“She always had the right thing to say.”

“You couldn’t help but love her.”

“She never lost hope.”

These words have been used countless times to describe a dear member of the Penn State community: Kayla Nakonechni.

Kayla was a Four Diamonds child, but she also was a recent Penn State graduate (December 2014), a former THON volunteer, a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend and an inspiration to many.

Several years ago, Kayla was a typical student at Penn State. She camped out at Nittanyville, went to classes, and even danced independently in THON.

The diagnosis of astrocytoma, a form of brain cancer, came in 2013. Despite the diagnosis, Kayla persevered. Her slogan was “Life is tough, but I am tougher.”

Members of Penn State Blue Band THON couldn’t agree more. Kayla’s family was paired with the Blue Band THON organization in 2014.

“She was like a sister to us,” said Caleb Gildea, Blue Band THON Family Relations chair.

John Tecce (Class of 2012) also emphasized their close bond.

“It’s been incredible. Kayla was only paired with Blue Band for a year or so. In that short time, the amount of support she got was incredible. There’s no other word I could use to describe it,” Tecce said.

During that year, Kayla joined the Blue Band on the field in Beaver Stadium for the “Game of THONs” halftime show at the Penn State vs. Ohio State game on Oct. 25, 2014. She also visited Blue Band THON dancers during THON 2015, delivering ice cream and words of wisdom.

Blue Band THON members returned the favor during her times of struggle, sending videos, cards, pictures — anything to remind Kayla of the 300-member family she had in Happy Valley.

Unfortunately after a tough two-year battle with cancer, Kayla passed on Oct. 14, 2015.

“She really had hope until the very end. I will always say that cancer didn’t beat her, she beat cancer,” Gildea said.

Despite the devastating news, many Penn Staters chose to celebrate Kayla’s life rather than sink into grief.

The Blue Band formed a heart on their practice field, a lasting reminder of the love the Blue Band had for Kayla, and vice versa.

Kayla THON photo

Often during Kayla's times of struggles, Blue Band THON members sent her videos, cards, pictures—anything to remind Kayla of the 300-member family she had in Happy Valley. Blue Band members also formed a heart on their practice field, a lasting reminder of the love the Blue Band had for Kayla, and vice versa.

Image: Christine Kilbride

Penn State students coordinated a “Purple Out” at the Penn State vs. Illinois game on Oct. 31, 2015. Thousands donned “#TeamKayla” shirts, despite many never having the chance to meet her.

The Penn State alumni network paid tribute as well. Several weeks ago, the Philadelphia Chapter of the Alumni Association started a new tradition at its annual Liberty Ball, an event that raises money for THON.

“It really brings the spirit of THON to Philadelphia, especially for those who can’t travel back to State College for THON weekend,” said Jamie Nelson, a 2000 Penn State graduate and Liberty Ball co-chair.

Kayla spoke at the Liberty Ball last year, and truly made an impact on the chapter, Nelson said.

To carry on her memory, the Kayla Nakonechni Knight Award was introduced and presented to the Nakonechni family on Kayla’s behalf at the event on Feb. 6.

“It was an emotional presentation,” Nelson said. “Kayla’s family is really pleased that this award will perpetuate Kayla’s memory, and recognize those with the same characteristics.”

In the future, the Knight Award will be presented to someone who is lending support to those in the Philadelphia area who struggle with pediatric cancer.
“I think it’s great to see the alumni form a support system outside the student body,” THON Executive Director Kate Mailey said. “I know honoring Kayla with this award meant a lot to her friends and family.”

In addition to the Knight Award presentation, Melania and Doug Shertzer shared their daughter Dami’s experience with pediatric cancer at the Liberty Ball. The Shertzers are coincidentally Blue Band THON’s other Four Diamonds family.

“When we found out Kayla was being paired with us, we were so excited to meet her. It was great for us to meet someone with the same kind of cancer as Dami,” Melania Shertzer said. “I just wish I had her in my life longer.”

Through tough times, the Blue Band THON family has formed even tighter bonds.

“I can’t express my love for our Blue Band THON family enough. I really can’t. They mean so much to us. We’ve grown a lot closer over the past few months, especially as we have grieved together,” Shertzer said.   

So Blue Band THON dancers — Kaylene Killeen, Jay Hauseman, Katie Speicher and Doug Uhazie — set out to dance for 46 hours not only for their girls, Dami and Kayla, but for their families as well.

“It could have been a really tough year for us,” explained Blue Band THON dancer Doug Uhazie. “But we used it all as motivation to make it a great experience for our families and organization. Dami and Kayla are huge sources of inspiration for me.”

As Family Hour approached, Kayla’s boyfriend, John, shared what THON means to him.

“I’ve always had THON and I always will have THON. For me it’s as much about Kayla as it is about Dami, as it is about my uncles who passed from cancer,” Tecce said.

Kayla THON photo

"It was amazing in the worst way," Blue Band THON dancer Jay Hauseman said of seeing photos of Kayla during the "Celebration of Life" video that played during THON. 

Image: Christine Kilbride

To honor the memory of all Four Diamonds children who have passed, THON organizes a “Celebration of Life” video that plays during the final hours of THON weekend.

Dami’s family, Blue Band’s four dancers, and John watched arm-in-arm.

Kayla’s name eventually came, accompanied by photos filled with smiles and Penn State pride. The tears were pouring out, the Blue Band THON family surviving through it together.

“It was amazing in the worst way,” Jay Hauseman, Blue Band THON dancer said.

In addition to the video, a few mothers of late Four Diamonds children spoke on stage. A common thread in these speeches was the fear that their child would be forgotten.

But the truth is, looking around the Bryce Jordan Center, no member of the Penn State THON family could ever be forgotten.

The Delta Kappa Epsilon brothers serve as a reminder of Andrew Garwood and his determined spirit.

Laney Brown’s lively spirit lives on through the Penn State Berks THON members in the stands.

Tally Sepot’s passion for helping others can be seen in every Penn Stater that is committed to raising money FTK.

Christopher Millard is with us every time a Penn Stater throws up their diamonds.

And Kayla Nakonechni’s memory is kept alive through every child that continues to smile, despite their fight with pediatric cancer.

These people may be gone — but as long as we THON, they’ll never truly leave us.

For more information and photos from this year's Liberty Ball, click here.

Last Updated March 08, 2016