From One Happy Valley To Another: The Story Of Alison Willie
Alison Willie was only 11 when her father and maternal grandfather were diagnosed with kidney cancer. The Willie family, from Happy Valley, Ore., had no ties to Penn State when it received the devastating news. More than a decade later, Happy Valley, Pa. is the family’s second home thanks to an intuitive 11-year-old and Uplifting Athletes.
Three months after Willie’s father went into surgery to have his kidney removed, the family lobbied Congress for Medicare coverage for kidney cancer drugs. Despite its efforts, they were told the drugs would not be covered because the disease was “not a popular cancer.”
In the next year, while the Willies tried to cope with their harsh reality, they found out about Uplifting Athletes — Penn State football’s philanthropic effort, which helps fund kidney cancer research. Since it began in 2003, Uplifting Athletes at Penn State has raised more than $1 million. Uplifting Athletes pairs college football programs across the country with rare diseases and raises funds to fight them. Unique to the organization, student-athletes can assume leadership roles.
After writing 10 letters to multiple members of the team, the Willies heard back from Jordan Norwood, a standout wide receiver for the Nittany Lions. The Willies were excited to hear back from someone involved with the fundraiser and hoped to work with the organization to raise money and awareness about kidney cancer. But that was only the beginning of the connection between Penn State and the Willie family.
Willie decided at the time she wanted to personally contribute to the efforts by knitting blue and white scarves to sell at an upcoming program: Lift for Life, Penn State Uplifting Athletes’ charity event. She made only 17 scarves. That year, she had no inclination of the eventual success she would have, but the scarves were a huge hit and inspired her to keep knitting.
Willie sells her scarves for $20 each and has raised more than $45,000 for the Kidney Cancer Association since beginning to knit. The Willie family’s connections with Penn State grew, one thing led to another, and Willie is now currently an enrolled junior studying civil engineering. Her decision to come to Penn State was a mix between her previous connection to the university and the amazing engineering program that is available here. “The school as a whole is amazing, and the spirit here was unmatched at any other school I visited,” Willie said.
Willie and her mom, Carol, are the primary knitters of the scarves, with occasional help from outside workers. There are many different styles, and last year’s introduction of the infinity scarf was particularly popular. In 2011, the Willie family partnered with McLanahan’s to make the scarves more accessible to students and the State College community.
“They have been a great partnership for us, and they sell our scarves year round and even handle phone orders for us,” she said.
Recently, the Willie family visited Penn State for Blue-White weekend. Scarf sales for the weekend totaled $1,347, marking the first scarves Alison sold this year. Last year, the Willies raised $7,337.48, or 366 scarves sold.
In the past year, the Willies spent $620.16 on yarn and $88 on shipping prices for the scarves. “My family purchases the yarn and pays for shipping so that all of the money from scarf sales can be donated directly,” Willie added. Each scarf takes approximately four hours to make which is an estimated 1,464 hours per year, and breaks down to four hours per day between Alison and her mother. Her dedication is nothing short of impressive.
Today, Alison is very fortunate that both her dad and grandfather are alive, but they are still being monitored to ensure their health continues.
“Kidney cancer can return to other areas in the body years out from the initial diagnosis, so routine monitoring is very important,” she said.
For more information on their scarves, check out the Willies’ Facebook page.