From One Happy Valley to Another: The Willie Family Story
Hanging near the front of McLanahan’s, you can spot something that isn’t like the factory-manufactured Penn State items filling the downtown store. On one end cap hangs a few dozen scarves that contain a small orange ribbon and a unique note.
To the busy passerby, the scarves might not stand out among the bold blue and white sweatshirts, but if you are lucky the distinct look of a handmade scarf just might catch your eye. However, to the Willie Family, these scarves represent much more than warmth or style, but rather hope, love, and most importantly, awareness.
After both her father and grandfather were diagnosed with kidney cancer, Alison Willie was brought out of her hometown of Happy Valley, Ore., to a new Happy Valley — the one we all know and love. Their story might sound a bit familiar as it rose to popularity thanks to an Oregon newscast that went viral and received over 20,000 views after the Sandusky scandal.
Rewind to 2004, when Alison’s grandfather was first diagnosed with kidney cancer. Approximately one year later, her father, who was on the opposite side of Alison’s family, faced the same diagnosis. The family’s world shifted after the diagnosis, especially considering the rarity of the disease, meaning that even the doctors who were treating Alison’s father and grandfather weren’t well versed on the disease. According to Alison, once patients show symptoms of the disease, it is typically terminal and unresponsive to Chemotherapy and other common cancer treatments. However, if detected early while the cancer is still contained to the kidney, patients may better their chances of survival through removal of the kidney.
Through an early diagnosis and other fortunate circumstances, both Alison’s dad and grandfather beat the odds and survived the diagnosis. The Willie Family became activists for the rare disease, even travelling to Congress to lobby for increased funding for those facing similar diagnoses. It was around this time that the Willies first heard of Lift For Life and Uplifting Athletes.
Uplifting Athletes is an organization founded at Penn State in 2003 by a former football player whose own father had been diagnosed with kidney cancer. After learning that little could be done due to the rarity and lack of funding for the disease, the Penn State football team rallied to create the first ever chapter of Uplifting Athletes and began to plan and organize the first ever Lift for Life event. Lift for Life now happens every July on Penn State’s campus, and is a strength and conditioning competition that aims to raise funds for kidney cancer.
After learning about Lift For Life and what the Penn State football team was doing for a cause that hit close to home, an email was sent from one Happy Valley to another, and a new family was formed. Alison’s mother was given the name of ten players who were helping to organize the event, and she didn’t hesitate to send letters to the players letting them know that they were making a difference. She never expected to get a response, especially from Jordan Norwood, a former Penn State receiver and 2009 graduate who went on to play for both the Cleveland Browns and the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL.
“To be honest I don’t know if there was something in particular in their letter that made me respond, as I try to respond to any personal letters I receive,” said Norwood. “But, what was awesome for me, was hearing back from them! Usually, people or fans just write a player to ask for something of him–an autograph, a piece of memorabilia–but, the Willies asked for nothing directly. Instead, what they wanted was to build a relationship and that was something I was interested in.”
In 2007, the Willies attended their first Lift For Life, and from then on they have attended the event every year. It was at Alison’s second Lift For Life that the idea struck her to start making scarves.
“The first year I knitted 17 scarves, and two people donated $100. It was pretty cool,” said Alison. “After that year, we kind of went into mass production. At first I was doing all the knitting, then I taught my mom how to knit, then friends, family, and even teachers from high school started knitting too. At one point we had over 40 knitters.”
After the success her scarves had at Lift For Life, Alison began selling them at Blue and White Weekend, even managing to score her own tent. She then went into retail, though more by coincidence than anything.
One day when Alison and her family were shopping at McLanahan’s, they were talking with an employee about sending some Penn State things to their home back in Happy Valley, Ore. When the woman noticed the coincidence of their town name the Willies then decided to talk to her about what they were doing with their scarves, and McLanahan’s agreed to give the family a place to sell their scarves free of charge. The profit from each $20 scarf is given directly to kidney cancer research.
The Willies donate all of the knitting supplies that way 100 percent of the money made goes directly towards kidney cancer research, and to date, the Willies’ scarves have raised over $30,000, which comes out to about 1,500 scarves being sold over roughly five years.
“Instead of just donating to kidney cancer research, we put our money into something that quadruples it, and raises awareness,” said Alison.
It certainly has been no small feat for the Willie family, but in the end it is all worth it. Alison is now a sophomore in the College of Engineering and couldn’t be happier to attend the school that has knitted its way to a special place in her heart. As for the football team, the Willie family (mostly Alison’s mom) continues to send handmade cards to the players to show their appreciation for what the team does for not only them, but others suffering from rare cancers. According to Alison, many of the players proudly display their cards on their desk while they are in study hall getting their work done.
“Having them be a part of my life has, for one, opened my eyes and made me more sensitive to less-popular diseases, but maybe more so than that, they have made me believe in the power of simply caring,” Norwood said. “Caring and love can cause an awesome string of unexpected events.”
Just like going from one Happy Valley to another. The Willie family scarves can still be purchased at McLanahan’s, and for more information you can visit their Facebook page here.