Thon Family Praises The Dedication Of Penn State Students and Volunteers
For the past three years, the Tafel family has been making the nearly two-hour trip from their home in Mechanicsburg, Pa., a small suburb of close to 9,000 people on the outskirts of Harrisburg, to a jam-packed Bryce Jordan Center to take part in the world's largest student-run philanthropic event.
For Ken, his wife Joan, and their twelve year old son Nick, the weekend-long celebration is well worth the trip.
"We haven't had a vacation in the last three years," says Joan Tafel. "This is our vacation."
At the age of six, Nick was diagnosed with Wilms tumor, a fast-growing kidney cancer. Following successful surgery to remove the tumor, his left kidney, and several lymph nodes, doctors inserted a mediport into his chest for intravenous injections and chemo treatments to avoid constantly sticking needles into his arm.
Due to a genetic marker, Nick had a 90% chance of relapse after radiation and chemotherapy treatment. To combat his chances of relapse, he was forced to endure a more aggressive regimen, leading to many stays at the hospital.
It worked. Nick is now five years cancer free.
With the support of the Kappa Sigma fraternity at Penn State, and now the addition of sorority partner Gamma Sigma Sigma, Nick's parents have seen the positive impact the students have had on Nick's development following a scary bout with cancer.
"Nick has really bonded with the guys in the fraternity, and now they've paired with a sorority, so it's an even bigger family," says Ken Tafel. "It's even bigger and more special now."
Along with special THON events at Penn State football games and tailgating parties, Nick's had the chance to see his biggest fans when the two Greek organizations came to watch him play catcher and left field for his hometown baseball team.
Even though he has a knack for America's pastime (one year, he had the longest and most accurate throw from center field during a team competition), fencing is his true passion. After spending time with the Nittany Lion fencing team as part of THON's Wish Program, he says his goal is to come to Penn State and fence.
Following his first ever fencing competition this past year, a few members of the family relations chair came to Nick's house to celebrate his accomplishments.
"We've made many new contacts over the years," added Joan Tafel. "I got a lot of new sons and daughters."
After fighting off cancer and seeing the benefit of THON weekend for three years, Nick has an appreciation for the hard work students put in in order to find a cure. When asked about his favorite part of the weekend, he doesn't hesitate to answer.
"I'd have to say the end," he says, "when they unveil the total money raised."
Nick's mother Joan echoes those sentiments, saying over the years, she's developed a close bond with the dancers - especially leading up to the big reveal.
"We've learned now too that, on Sunday, we spend pretty much the last five hours down on the floor with our dancers," says Joan Tafler. "We want to make sure that's where we are. We want to support our dancers for the final hours that have worked so hard."