Series note: This is the fourth in a five-part series featuring THON families in different stages of their THON experience.
Looking at Victoria Smith, 10, it would be hard to tell what she has been through. She is happy and smiling, as her friends push her quickly around the kitchen in her wheelchair, almost running over the family cat.
When Victoria’s mother, Stephanie Smith, brings down her fuzzy pink sweater — Victoria’s favorite color — her eyes light up, and she is eager to put it on.
“You never think that one day you would be on this side of THON and that you would be told that your child has cancer,” Stephanie said as she looked at her daughter, playing on the floor with two of her friends from Atlas. Atlas is a special interest organization for the Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon with which the family is partnered.
Stephanie and Matt Smith are both Penn State alumni who live just minutes away from campus. With the family living so close, it is not uncommon to have Atlas members over a couple days a week, Stephanie said.
During the parents’ time at Penn State, they had heard about THON but were unable to participate because they were not members of greek life, Stephanie said. Little did they know that almost a decade later they would be on the receiving end of THON.
“We knew at 19 weeks of pregnancy that Victoria would have some complications,” Stephanie said.
During a routine ultrasound, doctors found out that part of Victoria’s brain came through her skull, Stephanie said. Victoria was born on April 24, 2002 with cerebral palsy and spent the first 45 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where she almost died, Stephanie said. The family spent a lot of time running back and forth to the hospital and thought it was finally in the clear after a few years without any problems, she said.
Then, on Dec. 18, 2005, Victoria became very sick and had to return to the hospital for more visits. On Dec. 20, 2005, during one of their many hospital visits, the parents were told that Victoria had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or cancer of the blood, Stephanie said.
They were then approached by a social worker, who mentioned the Four Diamonds Fund. Because the couple already knew of the organization, it was immediately on board and went through the adopt-a-family process, she said.
By 2006, the Smiths had been paired with Atlas, which was just starting out at the time, Stephanie said. It didn’t take long for Atlas and the Smiths to become one big family, she said.
This year the Smith family will be dancing in celebration of Victoria being five years treatment-free, Stephanie said.
“Maybe we’ll have a huge party here to celebrate,” Stephanie said, laughing.
Atlas member Alyssa Jacunski was quick to reply that they “better have a party” because Victoria has 300 brothers and sisters who are ready to celebrate with her, she said.
The Smiths have become very close to their Atlas family and have welcomed them into their homes for dinners, parties and small visits since day one, Stephanie said.
Jacunski is a member of Atlas and has established a close bond with the family over the years. One of her favorite memories with the Smith family was the first night she met them. She had heard stories about them for a while and was finally invited to go over for dinner one night with two of her friends from Atlas, she said.
“Getting to meet Vic and learn how to interact with her was so much fun,” Jacunski (junior-nutrition) said.
Because of Victoria’s cerebral palsy, she had limited speaking abilities at first, but since going through chemotherapy, she has been unable to talk, Stephanie said. To communicate, Victoria will stomp her feet when she’s mad and shake her hands when she wants to go faster in her wheelchair.
For Jacunski, meeting the family was “an honor,” and it really helped her to realize that all the problems she faces don’t compare to what Victoria has gone through, she said.
“This girl has gone through so much and is still happy, so there is no reason for me to get upset over little thing,” Jacuski said.
Victoria also made an impact on Mike DePaul, the current family relations co-chair for Atlas.
“Victoria is like another sister to me. We have so much in common, and I would do anything for her,” DePaul (senior-psychology) said.
He met the family his sophomore year during the THON Family Carnival and at first was too shy to talk to them, he said. A few days after, he was also invited to go to the Smith’s house for dinner with some other members of Atlas. The two became friends right away and their bond has gotten stronger over the years, he said. She has also taught him to realize how little his problems really are, he said.
“Fundraising means so much more now that I have connected with Vic and to the kids because it gives me a purpose to keep going,” he said.
The family is excited for THON and to spend time with its Atlas family, Matt said. To see the organization grow over the years and to hear students talk about how excited they are to get involved is great, he said. After all the hard work the students put forth over the course of four or five months, THON is like the finish line, he said.
“There’s no word in the English language that describes it. It’s an experience,” Stephanie said.