Relay for Life raises money and hope for cancer cure

Participants in the Relay for Life walk the "survivor lap" on Saturday afternoon. — Photo by Harvey John Beth

Although the cause is a serious one, the atmosphere for much of the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) local Relay for Life Saturday was fun and festive. The theme for the 10th annual Martha’s Vineyard relay was Carnival for a Cure. As the participants kept up a 20-hour continuous walk around the high school track, they were greeted along the way by the sights and sounds of a three-ring circus.

For the past decade, Martha’s Vineyard has joined the ranks of over 6,000 relay hosts nationwide to raise money for the ACS — an organization dedicated to finding a cure for cancer. This year, 19 teams comprising 262 walkers participated in the overnight marathon.

The teams started the fundraising effort months in advance by soliciting donations both online and in person. As of Sunday the total raised had reached more than $70,000, although a final accounting was not complete.

In a change this year, the Vineyard relay, which traditionally kicked off Friday night and ended Saturday afternoon, ran from Saturday morning through early Sunday morning. Relay chairman Tammy King explained the day change. “Because it was difficult this time of year for people to get here after work, we thought about either moving it to October or changing the time,” she said.

At 9 am, Saturday, teams ranging in number from five to over 30 set up camp around the circumference of the track. At 11 am, DJ Donald Rose began playing rock and pop music, heralding the beginning of the event. At 1 pm, the marathon walk officially began. It did not end until 9 am Sunday as team members took turns to maintain a continuous walking presence on the oval track.

Throughout the day and night, fun events kept morale up and the money pouring in. Many of the team tents featured games of chance. The winning entry in a duct tape and newspaper wedding gown contest was auctioned off for $60. At one point, half a dozen men dressed in drag posed and strutted in a Mister Relay competition, collecting over $1,000 in their purses from delighted onlookers. Raffles and a bingo lap brought in more money.

Many of the events were new this year. Ms. King, who was serving her fourth, and final, term as event chairman, chose the carnival theme in the hope of attracting more families. “I thought this would be really fun,” she said. “I really wanted more kids to get involved.”

There were prizes for best tent and best decorated box (a kissing booth, a lion cage and a plastic cup pong game were among the inventive entries) and teams obviously had fun with the theme. Adding to the festive atmosphere, there was face painting, stuffed animal pony rides, a bounce house, photo op cutouts, pop corn and cotton candy and a team dressed as clowns.

However, the relay, as always, was a mixture of the celebratory and solemn. Harvey John Beth, treasurer of Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard who, along with his wife Eleanor, helped found the Vineyard relay, said, “There are somber moments. The luminaria lap [in which hundreds of paper bag luminarias in honor of those lost to cancer are lit] is a somber moment. You walk around the track led by the bagpiper and it brings tears to everybody’s eyes. It’s a moment of reflection for all of us. The relay is a very solemn event in many ways, but it’s also intended to be a celebration of life. It’s meant to be a birthday for those who didn’t think they’d have another birthday.”

Two of those who were given a second chance — Kevin Searle and Sue Parchesko — were featured in another of the relay’s more moving events, the traditional Survivor’s Ceremony. The two cancer survivors gave emotional speeches followed by the Survivor’s Lap in which 60 cancer survivors dressed in purple tee-shirts and many caregivers took a turn around the track to enthusiastic applause.

A Survivors/Caregiver’s Reception and Tea took the place of the traditional dinner this year. It was catered by Tea Lane Caterers who also provided refreshments for walkers. Also donating food and provisions were Cakes by Liz, Lattanzi’s Restaurant, Edgartown Pizza, Stop & Shop, Garrison Viera, Island Food Products, and Cash and Carry. The Rotary Club sold burgers, chips, and sodas, with all of the proceeds going to the cause.

Teams ranged from those honoring individuals, for example Diana Bardwell who succumbed to cancer in 2009, to local business-sponsored groups like the Stop & Shop and the MV Savings Bank, to organizations like the MVRHS football team and cheerleaders, the Vineyard Montessori School (first-time participants), Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and Saint Andrew’s Church. Three years ago, Hospice of MV and the MV Cancer Support Group joined forces for a team named Warriors and Comforters.

Mr. Beth, whose wife — a two-time survivor — is on the board of the Cancer Support Group, explained the purpose of that organization. “They raise money to give to cancer patients on the Island for various and sundry needs like boat tickets, help putting food on the table, and assistance with mortgage payments,” he said.

He was instrumental in getting some of the money raised by the local relay channeled back to the Vineyard.

“Initially there was a little concern that the money raised by ACS wasn’t staying on the Island. The ACS made a pledge that a portion of the proceeds each year would be spent on the Island. The ACS has been working with the hospital, helping them with equipment and an early detection facility. Now that the hospital is getting an oncology center, there should be even more help.”

Prevention awareness is one of the more important goals of the relay, according to Ms. King. “What I’ve been trying to do is spread the word that ACS’s mission is partly to educated people and let them know that early detection and fighting this disease is what it’s all about.”

“There are some amazing resources.” she added. She encourages people to take advantage of a 24 hour hotline for information on prevention and resources for cancer patients. The number is 1-800-ACS-2345.

Also, anyone who wants to help the Vineyard Relay for Life reach its ACS determined goal of $90,000 before August 31 can send a check to:

Relay for Life of MV, c/o Tammy King, 201 Lake Street, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.

Donations should be made payable to American Cancer Society (ACS). If you would like your donation credited to a particular team or person, write the name in the memo line.