‘I Want To Be An Actress’: Four Diamonds Child Uplifted By Penn State Thespian Society
For audiences around the world, theater unites strangers in tears, laughter, and excitement one performance at a time. For Four Diamonds child Theresa Illicete and the Penn State Thespian Society, a love of the arts sparked a much longer and remarkable connection.
“They entered into her world,” Theresa’s mother, Mary Illicete, said. “There would be times where I’d walk in her room, and I’d see her giggling and laughing because they would be on the phone with her, making her laugh.”
In September 2014, the Illicete family received unimaginable news. At nine years old, Theresa was diagnosed with osteoblastic osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of pediatric cancer that began a lengthy road to recovery.
“She went from being a very active child to having to sit in the bed all the time, and she had no friends, nobody to talk to. She was alone in the hospital except for me,” Mary said.
The remarkable bond between Theresa and her mother, though, couldn’t be stronger.
“You have two people who have been attached at the hip… that’s another thing about being a cancer mom,” Mary said.
“I think we are close because we’ve kind of been forced to be close,” Theresa said. “But now, we also have a regular mother-daughter dynamic.”
Sitting in the hospital with only her mother at her side, a brave little girl underwent intense chemotherapy and invasive treatments.
“She’s actually a miracle in herself,” Mary said. “When she was diagnosed, it was very aggressive, and she became resistant to all the protocols that they have for it.”
With uncertainty taking over, Theresa was admitted into an exploratory clinical trial for children with neuroblastoma. Only 67 children were allowed to receive treatment in the trial.
“And that’s what saved her life,” Mary said. “When the nodules came back in her lungs, they didn’t say hospice, but there was talk that there might not be anything else at that time. [From] every single one of the children that I was following via Caring Bridge or Facebook who were diagnosed at the same time as Theresa… she’s the only one left.”
Like so many children affected by pediatric cancer, Theresa was isolated from her peers throughout treatment and spent a lot of time alone with only her mother and doctors by her side.
Suddenly, the narrative changed. The Illicete family was paired with the Penn State Thespian Society through THON’s family pairing program.
“It was a definite change in her whole demeanor because, before that, I could see her kind of getting depressed. She was very lonely,” Mary said. “They were lots of energy… from then on, any time of the day, whenever we were at the hospital, and even when we were at home.”
The organization went above and beyond to connect with Theresa and her family, bonding over a mutual love of the arts. Between messages, video calls, and never missing a birthday party, the rest was history.
“We had group chats,” Theresa said. “I remember sending them 12-minute videos basically, and they watched them.”
Echoing Theresa’s gratitude, Mary explained the never-ending dedication of the Thespian Society throughout Theresa’s life.
“They never said, ‘Theresa, stop. I’m busy. I’m doing this or that,’” Mary said. ”That’s one of the things I loved most.”
As the oldest, longest-running organization at Penn State, the Penn State Thespian Society is well-known for being an inclusive community united by theater. This made a perfect match for Theresa, who enjoys imagining a future in the arts.
“I think my dream job is actually to be an actress,” Theresa said. “In eighth grade, I did theater. I really liked it.”
Dreaming of an acting career, Theresa was inspired by the Thespian Society to pursue theatre and even played young Anna in a school production of “Frozen.” Unfortunately, a leg injury challenged her to stand during the play, so the show was adapted so Illicete could still participate.
Through the craziness of navigating this experience, the Thespians were there every step of the way. In fact, quite a few also attended the production to see Theresa perform an adorable rendition of “Do You Wanna Build A Snowman?”
Almost 10 years after their partnership, Theresa continues to dream big about pursuing a career in the entertainment industry.
“Recently, I’ve been really loving Hamilton’s music, even just playing that alone in the car,” Theresa said. “I think I would want to be more in a drama, like “Stranger Things.” I want to be an actress… like Millie Bobby Brown… since we are about the same age. I went through a phase of filming myself, reading scripts I’d find online.”
With her special and enduring spirit, it’s clear Theresa is set to achieve amazing things. There’s also no doubt that the Thespian society is bound to be there every step of the way.
“She has a way of looking at the camera with this little side eye and little smile, and she does it so much that I call it her ‘Mona Lisa’ smile. That little quirky spark that she has, that was what was almost going to be crushed,” Mary said. “And, I do believe that the Lord sent people in her life, and helped her.”
Forever uplifted by the Penn State Thespian Society, the Illicete family is grateful to the students championing more hugs, more laughs, and more life.
“We always pray for them. They’re good kids. Very, very good, hard-working [kids],” Mary said. “They’re a blessing.”
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