Survivors and supporters gathered at Newtown High School Monday night with one goal in mind: fighting cancer.
Kicking off this year’s Relay For Life, which will take place from the evening of May 31 into the morning of June 1, the tenth such event in town, chair Chris Farrington, a 13-year survivor, said the year’s theme is “party,” not a birthday party, but other types of celebration.
Team Development Chair Michelle Babyak has been involved with Newtown’s Relay since it began in 2003, the same year as her diagnosis, she said. She is “very excited” for this event, which will be returning to the high school rather that the grounds of Newtown Youth Academy where it has taken place in recent years. She prefers the high school location for this “community event.” She said, “This is where it’s meant to be.” Also joining the kick-off was honorary chair and cancer survivor Mary Ann Jacob, who spent time Monday night speaking with guests.
This year's is the tenth presentation, but not the tenth anniversary, of Relay For Life of Newtown. After careful consideration last year, local Relay organizers and volunteers decided to put what would have been the tenth anniversary Relay on hold. It was announced in April that a 2013 event would not be held in recognition of the tragedy that struck Sandy Hook School and the community on 12/14. The decision was also an acknowledgement that fundraising priorities locally should remain focused on 12/14 victims and survivors.
This week, student Abi Kuligowski, along with friends Michelle Zarifis, Karlie Kuligowski, and Rachel Zambbernardi, said they would be team captains this year. Abi, who has been part of a team in the past, is a first-time captain this year and hopes to raise “a lot of money,” she said.
Seated behind the girls in the high school's lecture hall, more students, also forming teams, included Jack Lavelle, one of many people Monday to receive a raffle ticket from American Cancer Society representative Dave Andros. He gave away a small gift as guests were leaving. With Jack were Alexis Barra and Peyton Cutolo of the Heroes for Hope team. Also joining the kick-off event were students Kailee Dunnigan and Emily Crebbin.
After a brief slideshow and presentation meant to inform team members of how to improve and promote their websites and fundraising efforts, Mr Andros addressed attendees.
“Relay is a family,” he said. He also spoke of fundraising incentives for teams and individuals. Mr Andros held up a promotional T-shirt that read “I am hope” on the back.
“I think it’s a great message,” he said.
Behind him were small signs with their own messages: “Colon cancer isn’t just a man’s disease. Women 50 and older should be tested too.” And, “Help protect your skin from cancer by being smart about sun safety.”
Mr Farrington again faced the audience. “So, the questions comes up: why do I Relay?” He indicated that the video he soon showed would have the answers. In the brief clip were two women talking about the Relay event, family members’ diagnoses, and the prevailing need for hope. The women talked about how the relay provided them with support.
The short video talked about the time when Relay For Life began in 1985 through one man’s attempts to raise money and awareness. According to Cancer.org, “One person can make a difference.” The American Cancer Society Relay For Life began in Tacoma, Wash., with a 24-Hour Run Against Cancer.
Dr Gordy Klatt, a Tacoma colorectal surgeon, wanted to enhance the income of his local American Cancer Society office. He decided to personally raise money for the fight by doing something he enjoyed — running marathons.
In May 1985, Dr Klatt spent 24 hours circling the track at Baker Stadium at the University of Puget Sound for more than 83 miles. Friends paid $25 to run or walk 30 minutes with him. He raised $27,000 to fight cancer.
The message? To involve as many people as possible and raise funds to fight cancer. Mr Farrington asked, “So how do we spread this message?”
Ms Babyak next offered to come speak with groups and teams about the Relay.
“We want to continue to grow,” she said. “We want to finish this fight.” Mr Farrington then brought his conversation back to this year’s party theme. “We’ve done birthday parties, let’s see what other kinds of parties we can have.”
Newtown’s Relay has raised more than $2.4 million since the first Newtown presentation in June 2004, and averages 580 registered participants each year. Mr Farrington said recently that he wants residents to understand that the Relay is a community rally “where anyone touched by cancer, any family member, survivor, or caregiver, can come and celebrate life and support those engaged in the fight.”
The Relay involves teams of people who camp overnight while supporters take turns walking around the track throughout the 12-hour event.