Islanders fight cancer with fun, money

It’s not often that race car drivers, men dressed in drag, frog-costumed community members, military families and a variety of people and props mingle in an eclectic array going round a track for hours on end.

But when it does happen, great fun and large amounts of money raised are just two of the results that ensue. The best result, however, is the opportunity to come together as a community and take strides toward fighting cancer.

At this year’s North Whidbey Relay For Life, which took place Friday and Saturday at North Whidbey Middle School, Whidbey Islanders raised $160,030.96 for the American Cancer Society, with an estimated $10,000 still anticipated from pledges. This is more than North Whidbey has ever raised in its cancer-fighting relay.

Relay For Life Committee Co-chair Myron Brundage said he estimates that 3,000 people participated in North Whidbey’s 18th cancer relay. He said that of the 75 relay teams that registered, 72 showed up and participated.

“It was the biggest we’ve ever seen,” said Terri Neilson, the committee’s other co-chair.

Brundage said the first six or seven hours the track was elbow to elbow with participants. Relay supporters walked, jogged, ran and toddled their way around the middle school track. The steady flow of relay walkers started at 5:30 p.m. on Friday and went until 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. Relay teams had members walking at all hours of the night and the flow didn’t lighten significantly throughout the entire event.

“This year everybody just came on board,” Brundage said. “It was unbelievable.”

An opening ceremony and a survivor lap started the two day event, and bands, events, games, entertainment and festivities kept it going through the night, into the wee hours of Saturday morning and on throughout that day.

Parade of flags

The opening ceremony was one of the relay highlights as it included a parade of 200 flags, including flags from all 50 states and the flags and banners of the different attending organizations, committees and institutions.

Neilson said at one point those with flags rallied around those about to walk the survivor lap.

“All the flags gathered around the survivors and you just saw how many there were,” she said.

Brundage said approximately 3,000 cancer survivors call Whidbey Island their home.

“So what you saw was just a scratch,” he said.

After fighting colon cancer and being what he refers to as “gutted,” Oak Harbor resident and and relay committee member Ted Duris said he is glad to be a survivor. Along with many other survivors he proudly wore the relay’s purple survivor shirt that read, “Cancer is so limited. It cannot cripple love. It cannot shatter hope. It cannot corrode faith. It cannot destroy peace. It cannot kill friendship. It cannot suppress memories. It cannot silence courage. It cannot invade the soul. It cannot steal eternal life. It cannot conquer the spirit.”

Duris said while fighting the cancer in 2002, he had to continually remind himself that his life had been full and good.

“You deal with it and think positive,” he said.

Amy Beckner, the relay’s activities director, said another relay highlight was the Mr. Relay contest, where random men had to dress in drag, tell what Relay For Life meant for them and then run around asking for donations.

“In 15 minutes they raised $307. It was great,” Brundage said. “They were awesome and were going to do it again next year.”

Along with the committee-planned events, most of the relay campsites had small events, contests, raffles and creative money making schemes, including “save the bunny from the ax,” a wishing well, face painting, snack vending and photo opportunities.

Attending organizations also rivaled other camps for fund-raising records.

Oak Harbor’s First United Methodist Church raised the most with over $16,000, but first year organization attendee, Moving and Grooving, wasn’t far behind.

“It is incredible how the community bands together for this kind of stuff,” Neilson said.

Victims’ memorial

Along with the fun and games, relay attendees also took time to remember those who cancer has taken from them. In a memorial ceremony, families and community members lit luminarias that lined the track, and a list of names was read.

Stephanie Joseph, relay committee member in charge of the luminarias, said she estimated they put out 1,300 luminarias and read about 989 names.

Joseph said she saw some beautifully decorated luminaria bags.

“A lot of people put a lot of heart into their bags,” she said. “Every bag represents someone.”

One bag had a picture of a little blond toddler leaning in to kiss her mother, with the words, “I love you mom!” across the front. The luminaria, in memory of Cathy Latham, was decorated by her daughter, 28-year-old Cori Latham, who lost her mother to colon cancer in July of 2004.

Latham said Relay For Life was something her mother had always participated in, even before she found out she had cancer. Latham said last year her mother came to the relay for the survivor lap and then had to go home because she felt so weak.

But even though this year is Latham’s first relay without her mother, she does it with a smile.

“It’s very important to me,” she said.

Brundage and Neilson said this year was a success thanks to all the volunteers and support the committee and community gave. Due to generosity, the Relay For Life Committee only spent 4 percent of the funds it raised for organization, technical and production fees, in contrast to the 15 percent allowed by the American Cancer Society.

Neilson said the committee is already starting on next year’s relay, and that committee members hope to have more teams, more participants and more money raised to help fight cancer.

“Cancer doesn’t take a day off. It’s 24/7, 365 days. The only way we’re gonna beat it is if we get ahead of it,” Brundage said.

If anyone would like to volunteer, please contact the Relay For Life, North Whidbey Committee, at 672-4559 or 672-5166.

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