A Rochester Institute of Technology alumna’s heart-wrenching video essay about a father’s devotion to his young son waging a courageous fight against a rare and incurable pediatric cancer has won a 2017 Emmy Award.
Kate Penn ’07 (professional photographic illustration) won in the category of video essay (single camera operator) for “A Father’s Love: Ayden’s Final Days,” which provided a poignant glimpse into the harsh reality of diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG).
The regional Emmy Award was announced at the Mid-Atlantic Chapter meeting of The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in Hershey, Pa. At the time of the story, Penn was working as the healthy lifestyles and outdoor adventure reporter at the York Daily Record/Sunday News in York, Pa.
Ayden Zeigler-Kohler, a 10-year-old boy in the York area, died in March of this year. Penn created the videos about the boy and his father, Bill Kohler, for the newspaper’s website, and also wrote a story accompanied by photographs.
“Originally, I was just going to produce a short video on Ayden and his dad as they prepped for an upcoming hunting trip,” Penn recalled. “I’d heard about Ayden on a fundraising website, and his dad, Bill, was open to talking with me.”
Penn knew that Ayden had been diagnosed with DIPG months earlier. She captured video of Ayden and his father trying out Ayden’s new crossbow at an archery range before following them back to their house to interview Bill.
“As soon as Bill started talking, I knew I’d be spending the whole day with them. He was open, honest and devastated,” Penn said. “He wanted to share his family’s story, wanted people to understand the heartbreak, the frustration and the struggle. He wanted a miracle.”
During the interview, Ayden called for his father from his bedroom.
“Bill told me to keep recording as he went in to see his son with his lapel microphone still on. He said maybe then I would get a real sense of what life was like for them,” Penn added. “The audio from the conversation between father and son that followed was devastating. It went beyond any question I could have asked to get to that reality: what does a parent do when they are told their child is going to die?”
York Daily Record/Sunday News - Kate Penn: Bill Kohler sleeps on top of his 10-year-old son, Ayden Zeigler-Kohler, on their way to Johns Hopkins Hospital for chemotherapy. A major snowstorm effectively shut down the area two days before and Ayden, who was struggling to stay warm, was heavily bundled. Ayden died five days later at his home.
After her first story was published, Penn continued to follow Ayden and his family.
“They still had a story to share, and I was honored they trusted me to tell it,” she said. “I was there when Ayden’s face lit up as he held a bear cub. I was there when nurses pricked him with needles, giving him medicine that could not cure him. And I was there when, surrounded by family at his home, he died.”
While Penn said she was “excited and honored” to win the Emmy, her excitement was tempered by the reality of Ayden’s fight and the battle that his family continues today.
“I wasn’t able to go to the awards dinner, so I actually found out about the win on Twitter,” she said. “Honestly, what I’m most excited about with this is that more people will hear Ayden’s story.”
“No one survives DIPG,” she added. “Right now, it’s a death sentence. Ayden’s family is still fighting in his memory, still raising awareness and funds for research. If this award can help his story reach more people, all the better.”
Penn was a general assignment reporter at the York Daily Record for eight years before becoming a beat writer. She continued to take her own photos and video as well as writing stories in that role at the paper, where she worked for nearly a decade. Previously, after graduating from RIT, she interned at the Times-Union in Albany, N.Y., and the Bay City Timesin Bay City, Mich.
She currently serves as digital content manager at Proctors, a nonprofit arts organization in Schenectady, N.Y., producing video, photos and writing for the cultural institution’s social channels and website.
“I’m often referred to as ‘the storyteller’ … much of my job is to find and tell the many stories that are the heart of Proctors,” she said.
She hopes that her story and videos about Ayden and his family will be seen and shared widely.
“Ayden’s family wanted me to tell his story. By being incredibly open and honest during this awful time in their lives, they made sure that when Ayden’s story was told, people would listen,” she concluded.