When Austin Stitzer died Sept. 20, 2011, his family knew they’d never be alone.
Nearly four years later, his mother, Wendy Dobson, and brothers Bruce Stitzer, 14, and Christian Stitzer, 13, of Bellefonte, still make annual appearances at State College Mini-Thon with a group of Penn State students who adopted them into their special interest group called Common.
“It’s amazing,” Dobson said. “They still stop by the house to check up on us and play video games with the boys. They can be pretty competitive, but they have fun. A lot will be graduating this year, but we’ll get a new group who’ll take us in. It’s like a never-ending adoptive family.”
Austin was found with his first brain tumor when he was 4 years old. Four years later, after several checkups and a biopsy, he was found with a glioblastoma tumor.
“He complained of a bad headache, and then had a seizure, and we took him to the hospital,” Dobson said.
After about a year of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, at age 9, Austin died at home.
“He had gone through so much treatment, but they knew it wasn’t working and let us take him home,” Dobson said. “It’s a touchy subject, but then you see things like Thon that really do have a positive effect on you and all the work they do for childhood cancer awareness and Four Diamonds.”
State College Mini-Thon is modeled after Penn State’s IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, which annually raises money for the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
The fund helps families of children diagnosed with cancer.
On Friday night, State College Area School District hosted the event at Park Forest Middle School, with a goal to raise more than $60,000.
Last year, the event raised more than $59,000, said Stephanie Smith, an organizer and mother of Four Diamonds child Victoria Smith, 13.
“It’s amazing,” Smith said. “Penn State’s Thon is huge and then it trickles down into the local middle schools that do so much as well.”
Students had a to raise a minimum of $25 to get into the event, but most raised more through community outreach and canning.
Park Forest Middle School eigth-grade student Sarah Finton said she raised about $2,000 after reaching out to family and friends via email.
“You do this to save lives,” she said. “There are so many people who are impacted by cancer that it makes you want to help as much as you can.”
The event was started in 2009 by Park Forest Middle School adviser Nanci Rommel and the student council.
“We owe so much to her because it grows every year, and students and families and the community really come together to make it a success,” said eighth-grader Sophia Ghinos, who was part of a committee that choreographed the line dance routine. “When we start, there is so much energy and it brings joy to me to see the kids smile. After all, it’s for the kids.”
Ghinos, along with classmates Finton, Bella DiVergilio, and Meghan Hughes came up with a current events-inspired line dance that nearly 325 students from both State College middle schools danced to at the start of the festivities.
They were also accompanied by Four Diamonds families, and members of the Penn State basketball and hockey teams.
Hughes said the girls met throughout the year to come up with a dance and some customized lyrics to sing along with the sound of popular songs. On Monday, they met with some of their peers to teach the dance, and then held a refresher class about an hour before the dancing began.
“Everyone’s been really committed to learning and helping out,” DiVergilio added.