'It's unifying': Relay for Life draws community support

Posted: Friday, May 29, 2009

"It's unifying."

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Chantel Warfield, Kassidy Foust and Missy Foust (obscured) count money raised in the Bras For a Cause tent, one of many stops alongside the Skyview track designed to raise funds for the American Cancer Society. Photos by M. Scott Moon

That's the phrase Melissa Maal of Sterling uses to describe the Relay for Life, an annual 24-hour event to benefit the American Cancer Society.

"It brings a lot of people out," Maal said Saturday as Relay for Life team members continued to walk their laps around the track at Skyview High School. "You see people in the community who you don't know who have struggled with it. Cancer will bring everyone down to the same level."

Maal was at the relay Friday and Saturday as team captain for a squad from the Soldotna Church of God. She said she became involved through her church team six or seven years ago, and has come back every year to support the American Cancer Society's programs through the fundraiser.

"The unity of it is awesome. You think about those who are fighting it, those who have lost to it. It's pretty awesome that so many people can come together and work toward the same goal," Maal said.

In fact, Teresa Gamble, chairwoman for this year's event, said 399 participants had registered for the relay online, and more than 800 luminarias were lit for a ceremony Friday night which, for many, is the highlight of the relay. The luminarias, candles inside a paper bag, were decorated with messages remembering loved ones lost to cancer or honoring those who have survived their battle.

"That's as large a number as we've ever had," Gamble said of the number of luminarias. "It was beautiful."

The ceremony was held Friday at 11 p.m., and Gamble said that for whatever meteorological reason, it seemed a little darker than usual at that hour, making the luminarias seem even brighter.

"It was beautiful -- chilly, but beautiful," Gamble said. "There were quite a few people on the track all night long."

Maal said her team recruits teenage members of the church's youth group to cover those late night and early morning laps, and is able to have five or six of them supporting each other and supporting the cause at any given time.

Amy Parham, team captain for the Sensational Sterling Superstars, said the early morning hours, when the luminarias are lighting the way, is her favorite time to take her turn walking laps.

"(The luminaria ceremony) is always one of my favorite parts -- just remembering," Parham said. "My favorite time to walk is about 2 in the morning. It's quiet, and the luminarias are lit up -- it's peaceful."

Parham said her team carried some extra emotion with them this year as the woman who started the team, Debbie Clonan, died of cancer earlier this year.

"This year, we pretty much dedicated our walk to her -- she inspired so many people," Parham said.

Parham said her team started relay preparations slowly because team members just weren't into it.

"But we dug down deep -- she wouldn't have wanted us to quit. She was always trying to find a cure, always trying to find answers, so we did the same," Parham said.

The team finds a number of ways to raise money for the American Cancer Society. This year, they raffled a hand-crafted picnic table and came up with a some unique items -- brightly decorated bras, to symbolize the battle against breast cancer.

Parham said the bra project brought in more than $350.

Parham's team raised about $8,000 for the Relay for Life, and Gamble said the event raised $89,000, with more donations still coming in. Gamble said the event will likely raise more than $90,000 when everything is totaled up, and might even approach the goal of $108,000.

"This year was a tough year economically, and we're blessed to have sponsors come in and do what they did," Gamble said. "We have a lot of local support, and we're very fortunate to have it. Teams worked really hard to raise money for a cause they believe in."

It's a cause that continues to touch many lives across Alaska. Ashley Scheve, who works in Anchorage for the American Cancer Society, said that in 2008, more than 850 Alaskans died of cancer. This year, 2,500 people will be diagnosed with cancer. During their lifetimes, one out of two men and 1 out of three women across the country will be diagnosed with cancer.

Scheve said funds raised by the American Cancer Society got not just to research, but also to programs such as smoking cessation, programs to help cancer patients look and feel better during treatment, and programs to transport and house patients seeking treatment.

"Those dollars go to a lot of places," Scheve said.

Debbie Carroll and Rachel Hanson have had their families affected by cancer, and it inspired them to put together a relay team.

"We both have lost our dads in the last two years, so we put together a team called Daddy's Girls," Carroll said.

This is their second year participating. After showing up with a few team members and three camp chairs last year, their team has grown to seven members and they pitched a full-fledged camp on the track infield this year.

"It's a family effort," Carroll said.

As to her experience with the relay, Carroll used one word to sum up the entire experience.

"It's fabulous," she said. "It's emotional, it's fun, it's fabulous. We love it -- and we walked all night, we had somebody on the track the whole time."

Will Morrow can be reached at will.morrow@peninsulaclarion.com.

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