Following an overcast, extremely muggy day, a sunset that streaked the sky with oranges and reds greeted the estimated 400 people who participated in the 2011 Fairfield County Light The Night Walk. Held at Fairfield Hills last Saturday afternoon and early evening, the event was highlighted by speeches by a pair of cancer survivors, two miles of walking to honor blood cancer patients past and present, and the sunset that happened just as the formal part of the event began. The beautiful early autumn sunset was a surprising sight, a strong contrast to the dreary sky and heavy air that had permeated the area for most of the day.
Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) Executive Director Jean Montano, who was standing on the temporary stage in the lawn in front of Newtown Youth Academy, was privy to the beautiful sight while speaking. She interrupted her brief speech to make sure everyone else enjoyed the view.
“I want everyone to turn around and just look at that sky,” Ms Montano said during her welcome remarks. “That is an inspirational sight.
“It’s special people like you,” she continued, “who are going to help us find cure and continue the two-part LLS mission: continued research, and taking care of patients with these diseases. There is cutting-edge research being done right now. It is a very exciting time to be involved.”
The September 24 event was the formal culmination of months of fundraising by at least 28 teams across Fairfield County. “About $34,000 was raised prior” to Saturday’s event, according to LLS Campaign Coordinator Kristen Angell, “and about $9,000 was handed in Saturday night.
“While we didn’t hit the $50,000 mark on Saturday, money continues to come in and be counted, and will continue arriving for a couple more weeks,” Ms Angell continued. “It is projected we will definitely be hitting that mark, it’s just a matter of when.”
LLS’s mission is to cure those diseases, and to improve the quality of life of patients and their families. Fundraising by those who participating in last weekend’s event can continue, Ms Angell said, until January 31, 2012.
Saturday’s event, however, was about much more than the money that had been raised. The evening was, for many, an opportunity to remember and honor those who have lost their fight against blood cancers, or to stand with those who are currently battling or have successfully battled any form of leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, and myeloma.
For an hour, team members arrived at Fairfield Hills and visited booths that had been set up by Sandy Hook Hair Co., Newtown Deli & Catering, The One-Eyed Pig and others, enjoying services and some refreshments. Those who had done fundraising to certain levels received LLS T-shirts, balloons to carry later in the night, and even wristbands that allowed them to dine free of charge.
There was also music thanks to Mr Morning and 105.5 FM, face painters, a bounce house, sand art, TEAM Banner decorating, and a Patient Services tent with information about all the programs and services LLS offers to patients and their families free of charge. Newtown High School teacher Jay Edwards returned to emcee the event.
As the sun set, there were brief remarks shared by LLS staff members and then two brief but personal speeches by cancer survivors.
“More patients than ever are in need of financial support,” LLS Patient Services Manager Phyllis Osterman told the crowd. “Each and every one of you is responsible for helping to find the cures.”
Newtown High School sophomore Zach Pollock was the first Honored Hero Saturday night. Now 14 and cancer-free, Zach was diagnosed with high risk T-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL, when he was in fourth grade. He spoke frankly of his treatment, which was “long and painful,” calling the times he was stuck in his home in isolation “boring.”
Zach’s treatment included intensive chemotherapy along with cranial radiation. In January 2009, he completed a very aggressive chemotherapy protocol that took 40 months to finish.
“Losing my hair was kind of cool,” he said, “but the stares from strangers were not.”
Mary Teicholz of Danbury was equally brief with her remarks. She gave a quick overview of a very challenging period began when she was diagnosed in December 2006 with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), coupled with mylodysplastic syndrome. By the following month she was in the hospital, receiving chemotherapy “24/7, for an entire week,” she said.
Ms Teicholz also needed a bone marrow transplant and was fortunate in that her sister was a match.
“March 1, 2007, the day I received my transplant, that is the day I consider my second birthday,” she said, even though the transplant was followed by 100 days in the hospital, in isolation. “Imagine going through the scariest point of your life without any human contact, not even a hug.”
Now cancer-free, Ms Teicholz said she is committed to making sure more people survive leukemia.
“I was introduced to someone recently and when he was told I was a leukemia survivor, his response was ‘People survive that?!’” she said. “We need to get the message out. You can survive leukemia.”
The Walk itself followed the remarks, with teams invited to line up in front of NYA and then, following a countdown, walking the track that had been designated by LLS staff. Holding their balloons — helium-filled balloons with small battery-powered lights inside them — this was the time that everyone had been waiting for. White balloons represent survivors and current patients, red balloons symbolize LLS supporters, and gold balloons are carried to memorialize those who have died.
A quick gathering back at the stage followed the walk, which is encouraged to be done at a casual pace. Ms Angell offered thanks to this year’s participants, and encouraged them to continue to honor those who are fighting as well as those who have been lost to blood cancers.
“Thank you everyone,” she said. “We’ll see you next year!”
The 2011 Fairfield County Light the Night Walk was the third annual one held in Newtown.
In 2009 the event was held at Newtown High School. Organized by Colette Ercole, Ginny Chion and Gregg Simon, the walk was to have been held outdoors but was moved into the school’s spacious gymnasium due to inclement weather.
Last year the walk moved to Newtown Youth Academy, with Mrs Ercole and Mrs Chion again working with the Connecticut chapter of LLS to organize the walk at its new location. Between 350 and 400 walkers participated, and raised a reported $39,000. Participants in Light The Night Walks across the country last year raised more than $39 million.
(Visit www.NewtownBee.com and then click on the Features tab to locate this story, which is accompanied by slideshow of photos from the 2011 Fairfield County Light The Night Walk.)