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Penn State grad Kayla Nakonechni shared her passion for life, Thon

Kayla Nakonechni laughs as she chats with Jay Paterno during the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon on Saturday, February 22, 2014 at the Bryce Jordan Center. Nakonechni danced in THON, and now is a Four Diamonds child as she battles astrocytoma.
Kayla Nakonechni laughs as she chats with Jay Paterno during the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon on Saturday, February 22, 2014 at the Bryce Jordan Center. Nakonechni danced in THON, and now is a Four Diamonds child as she battles astrocytoma. CDT photo

Kayla Nakonechni should be somewhere at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine’s graduate program taking notes, writing a paper or studying for an exam.

The late Penn State graduate and Thon child was accepted into the program, one that would have allowed her to follow a career in pediatrics.

Cancer, however, took her life before her career could take hold — but not before she made a difference in the lives of children.

Nakonechni was, after all, hooked on Thon.

She volunteered to do fundraisers for the student-run philanthropy, going as far as to ask her mom, Jeanne, if the family could host a canning weekend. Jeanne Nakonechni said OK and asked how many students would be living in their house for two nights and three days.

Kayla responded “25,” a number that actually fell short, because four more would make the 160-mile trip to her parents’ home. She later would dance in the 46-hour marathon in the Bryce Jordan Center in 2013.

She also would soon set her heart on a career in pediatrics.

“Her family credits her summer spent at the University of Pittsburgh Health Career Scholars Academy for furthering that passion, which originally began from watching her role model, Samantha Blakeslee, pursue her own career in pediatric medicine,” said John Tecce, Nakonechni’s boyfriend. “Her diagnosis also played a big role in her interest in oncology as did her involvement in Thon.”

Tecce and Nakonechni dated for four years.

They planned a future together.

“I’ve never met someone so universally loved,” he said. “I knew she was special from the day I met her, but as I met her friends and family it became clear just how special she was in their lives as well. My own friends and family also loved her from day one. With all of these people that loved her, being the person she wanted to spend the rest of her life with was a blessing.”

Her future, Tecce said, would have been simple: helping sick children and spending time with friends and family.

Nakonechni’s family grew Aug. 20, 2013, the day of her diagnosis. The Penn State community rallied behind her, particularly the Blue Band, which “adopted” her as a Thon child.

“We will stay very involved with the Penn State Blue Band, our adopted organization,” Tecce said. “They have become like family to us.”

Nakonechni’s friends, family and extended family will celebrate her life this weekend.

Her viewing will be 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday at Lawrence Gabriel Funeral Homes, located at 2 Hospital St. in Carbondale. Her funeral will be at 11 a.m. Monday at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, located at 15 Fallbrook St. in Carbondale.

The family asked that visitors allow “ample time” to park due to expected large turnouts each day.

The support the family has received during Nakonechni’s bout with cancer and since she died is “nothing short of incredible,” Tecce said. The family, he said, wanted to particularly thank the Thon community, the Penn State Blue Band, Nittanyville, Penn State basketball, Erin O’Leary, Dr. John Waters, and the staff, doctors and nurses at Penn State Hershey.

“Kayla’s mom told the story at Thon last year of Kayla calling her the very first day of her freshman year talking about how Penn State is a big school that feels like a small school, and we have seen that over the past two years,” he said. “The outpouring of support truly kept her, as well as her family and I, going.”

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