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Relay for Life garners community support

‘Connected to a big family’

Posted: June 2, 2013 - 8:00am  |  Updated: June 4, 2013 - 7:02pm
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Whitney Yeager, 7, looks inside of a luminaria bag Friday. The Luminarias are personalized to honor a friend or loved one who is affected by cancer.  Rashah McChesney
Rashah McChesney
Whitney Yeager, 7, looks inside of a luminaria bag Friday. The Luminarias are personalized to honor a friend or loved one who is affected by cancer.

Joey Yourkoski’s favorite color is camouflage — if that even counts. He’s not sure it’s a color. So really, he said, it’s purple. Purple because it reminds him that he’s a survivor, he said, and that others, wearing the same color, know what it is like.

“They didn’t just go through this personal h-e-double-hockey-stick (by themselves),” said the 11-year-old cancer survivor.

He realized the significance of the color at a Relay for Life in Nikiski last year. So many wore purple. His bus drivers. His teachers. He wasn’t alone.

“Purple is my absolute favorite color of all,” he said.

And like last year, at 11 p.m. Friday night in the Soldotna Sports Center parking lot, Joey, who will be 12 come Saint Patrick’s Day, was among a crowd of people who knew the story behind the color purple. Some people’s jackets left only tabs of purple at their waist. Others wore them exposed to the night. Joey’s purple shirt looked a little big for him.

But he was preoccupied standing at the edge of the track, as they walked around him, over and over. He and his friend, 11-year-old Parker Boyce, of Nikiski, were hawking ribbon-shaped cookies and pumpkin and banana muffins. The cookies were available with pink or purple frosting.

A small girl walked up to their table.

“Kenny, would you like to buy something?” Joey asked.

She said sure.

Joey jumped a little and showed the girl her options.

By 2 p.m. Saturday, Joey had raised more than $2,000 for the American Cancer Society. In total, this year’s central Kenai Peninsula Relay for Life raised $60,919.92 for the foundation. The money will fund research to find a cure for cancer.

Dawni Givgler started walking the track at 6 p.m. Friday. The Soldotna resident said she hopes cancer will be a memory by the end of the century. She said she wants purple, and pink, to be only colors.

“I want it to be over,” Givgler said, passing Joey and Parker’s unoccupied stand. The two boys were out walking too at 9:30 p.m. “I want them to think girl (when they see pink). I want it to be over. … I want them to wear purple because they like the color.”

Givgler lost her grandmother when she was 2 or 3. At the time, she didn’t think much about it. Then she lost her mother. It was lung cancer. It was in November, 2010. And then her friends. Sandy Johnson from pancreatic cancer soon after her mother. And then breast cancer took five more. And all of it in 6 months.

Her mother wore purple every day after she was diagnosed, Givgler said. Relay for Life T-shirts. Purple socks. Purple flip-flops. She gave her mother purple beads, and her mother would make bracelets in bed.

“Purple was her favorite. It was no longer just a color for her,” she said. Purple reminded her mother that every day she woke up, she was a survivor, Givgler said.

Now when Givgler sees purple, she thinks: “How does that affect them? Are they a survivor?”

For Joey, she wishes purple was just another color, like camouflage.

“He was our survivor speaker last year,” she said about the previous year’s Relay for Life. “He’ll tell it how it is, how it was. He doesn’t care. He wants everybody to hear his story.”

At 10 p.m., while Givgler and about 35 others were still walking around the track, Dan Gensel and Merrill Sikorski, readers during a luminaria ceremony, walked up on the stage at the head of the track. They had a list of 258 names.

Joey was 4 1/2 years old when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. “I remember some of it,” he had said, “but not all of it.”

Gensel began reading from the list. “We’re here in honor of Al Karez. We remember Andy Bouwens.”

Joey remembers how his skin hurt so much some days from the medication that he couldn’t bear to be touched. Other days he had to eat every 3 hours because the steroids made him so hungry.

“In honor of Bonnie Dempsey. In memory of Brad Kiffmeyer,” Sikorski read. A woman in front of the stage tucked an orange blanket around her two children sitting on the pavement. “In honor of Brent Bocnuk.”

To counter the steroid, which gave him an allergic reaction, Joey had to take benadryl. He was sleepy all the time. And he remembers losing the hair on the back of his head, and his father shaving it off so it wouldn’t look so funny.

“In memory of  Cynthia Schickram. In Honor of Danny Miller.” A woman stopped on the track and smiled. A man stood alone with his hands in his pockets and his sweatshirt zipped up, staring at the two men reading.

Joey said his shaved head looked weird, but his father, his brother and his uncle shaved their heads too.

“In honor of Kay Kemp.”

But Joey also remembers how everyone at Seattle Children’s Hospital was so nice, how he got two popsicles instead of one, and how his mother wouldn’t make him go grocery shopping if he didn’t want to.

He remembers how everyone came together. He remembered that he wasn’t alone. And his mother, Laura Niemczyk, remembers how close her son came.

“In memory of Pat Steiner.”

“You feel like you’re connected to a big family,” Joey had said.

And that’s the trick, Givgler said. She said her mother had wanted to hide her cancer. But Givgler insisted she be open about it.

“You lean on friends,” she had said. “You lean on the family you have left.”

Fighting it alone, she said, is a lot harder.

In two months, Joey will be 3 1/2 years in remission. He said cancer didn’t do much to him. Sure, he had to wait to learn to swim and he now has a physically larger heart from the medications, but it only made him stronger, he said.

“Just keep going. Don’t look at the negative side of it. There’s always something positive about it,” he said. “Like for me it was extra ice cream. Just take it one day at a time.”

At 11:30 p.m., Joey and Parker had sold all their banana muffins at the stand. And they would have had chocolate muffins, but Parker had eaten all the chocolate chips. He said it was about $15 worth.

The little girl walked back up to the boys with several dollars in her hand.

“Kenny, do you want to buy another one?” Joey asked.

She said yes.

Parker got excited, and Joey asked him to not scare their customer away.

Their trick to selling so many cookies and muffins, Joey said, is they walk several laps around the track, planting the seed among other walkers, and return to their stand. Then they wait. It’s very effective, Joey said.

About 20 people still walked the track in the Friday afternoon sun. Joey rocked from foot to foot with his arms clasped behind him. He was getting cold in just his purple shirt, but the boys still had half a tray of cookies and about a dozen muffins left.

Dan Schwartz can be reached at dan.schwartz@peninsulaclarion.com.

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