“Since I was a little kid at my family’s first THON, I knew that I wanted to come to Penn State, and I knew that I wanted to be a THON dancer.”
Neya Kratzer’s brother Collin was diagnosed with medulloblastoma brain cancer when he was 16 months old, and she was 7. Throughout his treatment, the Harrisburg family was supported by Four Diamonds, an organization that helps provide care and medical coverage for children with cancer at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital. Four Diamonds also supports childhood cancer research at Penn State Hershey Medical Center and Penn State College of Medicine.
THON, of course, is a University student-run philanthropy, the largest in the world. All proceeds are donated to The Four Diamonds Fund.
The Kratzers became a Four Diamonds family in 2010. In 2011, they were paired with Penn State Altoona and its student organization Altoona Benefitting THON (ABT) through the THON Adopt-a-Family program. Over the last twelve years, the Kratzers have attended nearly every annual dance marathon at University Park. They’ve also made many trips to Altoona for THON events and to visit with ABT members.
“The students in the organization have always been a great source of emotional support for me and my family,” Neya says. “It’s just such a nice community that we've been able to be a part of.”
She adds how important it was for her to have such a connection while her brother was sick. When so much time and attention needed to be given to Collin, ABT members helped her feel important, included, and seen. When Collin’s illness meant she had to miss out on things, ABT could help fill in some of those gaps with calls, visits, and special gifts. Maybe most important was the empathy and understanding of what she and her family were going through. “Even when I was little, and there was a big age gap between us, they still felt like friends to me. They would come up for my birthday and things like that. It was really nice.”
The whole Kratzer family has built lasting relationships with dozens of ABT students over the years, many of whom they are still in touch with and see occasionally. Neya even invited a few to her high school’s mini-THON event during her senior year.
So, when it was time for her to choose a college, of course, Penn State was at the top of her list: her decision to pursue a nursing career was not really a surprise, either.
“I knew that I wanted to do something in the medical field. Seeing how the doctors and nurses were with Collin inspired me to do something like that for others. I think I’d like to go into pediatrics eventually.”
Neya will be able to graduate from Penn State Altoona’s Nursing program. “I'm happy with that. I like having this connection to Altoona and Altoona Benefiting THON through my brother's story. I’m glad I can stay here all four years.”
With her connection to THON, it was also pretty much a given that she would get involved with ABT right away.
Donna Pearlman works in Penn State Altoona’s Center for Student and Civic Engagement. She is also a co-adviser for ABT and has known Neya since the Kratzers became a THON family. She remembers running into Neya and her mom during a prospective student visit to the college. “I was so excited to potentially have her as a member of ABT, but I also wanted to hold back so as not to make her feel obligated to join. I wanted to leave her space to create her own identity as a Penn State Altoona student and choose a path on her own. Deep down, I was crossing my fingers, hoping she would dive right into ABT, and was thrilled when she did.”
Neya was already familiar with many of the 2022-23 ABT members from attending THON events over the last few years. “It was helpful having people I already knew and who knew me and my family’s history. I felt like part of the group before we even had our first meeting. It was so easy to just join in.”
This past year, Neya served as a special events captain. She took the lead on ABT’s silent auction, the organization’s most intricate function to plan and carry out. She worked with other captains to organize events like a spaghetti dinner and a luncheon to spread the word about THON, and she also arranged for her mother to come and speak to the group.
“It's cool to be on the other side of it and to see where all the hard work happens, plus we’re all close and work well together. I had a bit of a rough transition to college, but having ABT there for me helped me find my way.”
As she moves into her second year at Penn State Altoona, Neya will take over as community fundraising executive. She will organize ribboning events and work with local businesses to secure donations for fundraising efforts. She is also working with a family friend who owns a hand-made soap business to produce specialized bars to sell—they’ll feature gold ribbons, the color for pediatric cancer awareness.
But what Neya really wants is to be selected as a THON dancer. “It's the biggest goal that I've ever had and would be so fulfilling. It would mean a lot to be able to dance for my brother the way other ABT members have for all these years.”
Collin is now 14 and cancer-free. Neya says he likes coming to the campus to visit her and see the other members of ABT. She also thinks that he’s proud of her for her commitment to ABT and the greater THON purpose. He’s not the only one.
“To watch Neya grow from a child in a Four Diamonds family to a young woman who is taking leads and championing other Four Diamonds families has been a joy to witness,” says Pearlman. “You can tell that she is committed to her brother, committed to her family, and committed to the cause. ABT was incredibly fortunate to have her on the team this past year, and we look forward to all the great things we know she will contribute over the next three years.”
“I take my ABT responsibilities seriously,” says Neya. “I really want to do everything I can to help, to make an impact, and to leave my own mark on it. It's nice to be able to give back to something that has been such a big part of my family for more than half of my life.”