MV Relay for Life joins stories of hope and survival

The Sweet Carolines, who always display a scoreboard of the night's Red Sox game, walked in the opening ceremony. Front row, from left to right: Kathy Duys, Shirley Van Der Schueren, Kathy O' Sullivan, Krista Curry, and Jeff Caruthers. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The 9th annual Martha’s Vineyard Relay for Life, held Friday and Saturday at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School athletic field, gave Islanders the chance to honor friends, co-workers and family members — survivors and victims alike — and support the American Cancer Society.

Greg Marshall was walking for his mother, Corinne Hatt, who died of cancer in 2009. Melissa Dolby was walking for her friend, Diana Bardwell, a popular Hospice of MV nurse who succumbed to a rare form of mouth cancer one year ago this month.

Ms. Bardwell was very active in the relay for many years. Last year she participated as a survivor. Two weeks later she was gone. A large group of her friends and supporters honored her by walking this year under the name “Team Diana.”

Debbie Grant and Mike Cassidy walked to honor their daughter, cancer survivor Samantha Cassidy. Organizer Karen Kukolich walked for her mother and stepmother, among others.

“There’s hardly anybody who hasn’t been touched by cancer,” Ms. Kukolich said. “With this event we’re able to get together as a community.”

Hundreds of people and 28 participating teams showed up for the overnight relay at the high school track Friday. They raised around $90,000 through fundraising, sales of food, and memorial luminaria bags, raffles, and donations. The MV Relay is one of almost 6,000 such events worldwide that make up the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life fundraising initiative.

People started gathering at 3 pm Friday afternoon. Small tents were set up around the circumference of the track – each one representing a different team. Most tents had themes or attractions like a large, whinnying stuffed horse available, for a donation, for riders both large and small, and an Olympic ring toss game inspired by the event’s 2012 theme, “Going for the Gold to find a Cure.”

The Rotary Club sold hot dogs, hamburgers and sodas with all the proceeds going towards the cause. DJs Smooth B and DC Rose of R & B Entertainment provided music. People continually walked around the track, solo or in small groups — each team is required to have one member on the track at all times from the opening ceremony to the closing on Saturday morning. Kids ran around and played games. A number of little girls dressed as angels and a group of cheerleaders in uniform added a festive element to the spirited event.

After enjoying an early dinner at the MVRHS cafeteria, funded by the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank and prepared by Tea Lane Caterers, about 70 cancer survivors gathered at 6 pm for the official kick-off — the survivors’ lap.

Oak Bluffs School 7th grader Kasy Stevenson sang the National Anthem. Event chairman Tammy King said a few words to the crowd gathered on a small set of bleachers before introducing this year’s survivor speaker, Joan Hewson.

“No matter where you go, there is a place that has an event,” Ms. Hewson said. Choking up a little, she added, “and it’s family.”

A two-time breast cancer survivor who has participated in nine relays both here and elsewhere, Ms. Hewson spoke positively of her battle with cancer, “It teaches us what and who is important in our lives. To borrow a phrase from another organization, it forces us to live one day at a time. Life is a gift and that’s why I choose to live on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a beautiful, awesome place.”

Ms. King then introduced top fundraiser Sheila Hughes. Ms. Hughes, who lost a leg to cancer as a teenager, has garnered the most individual donations for many years now. She and the other survivors, all dressed in purple tee-shirts, then walked around the track led by a flag-bearing honor guard made up of policemen from every Island town. The survivor group — some walking, some in wheelchairs, Ms. Hughes on crutches — circled the track to the 70s disco hit “I Will Survive,” arriving back by the small grandstand to enthusiastic cheers.

Fresh recruits arrived throughout the day with maximum numbers on hand for the luminaria lap at 9 pm. Throughout the day, people set up decorated paper bags around the track to honor survivors and victims. At dusk, candles inside the bags were lit. Bagpiper Tony Peak, in full traditional dress, led a solemn lap, piping Amazing Grace and Highland Cathedral under a cloud-streaked, moonlit sky.

The evening activities included themed laps and a short performance by flamenco guitarist Alberto de Almar. Local businesses sent over donated pizzas, and complimentary coffee from Mocha Mott’s was available all night long.

At 10 pm the music was shut down because of noise complaints in previous years, but walkers kept up the marathon — team members taking turns throughout the night. The event, which was scheduled to go until 11 am Saturday morning had to be halted around 8 am due to a rainstorm.

A planned 5K race around the track and adjacent field was also cancelled. According to event organizers, only three relays in nine years have not been hampered by rain.

Although participation in the 2012 relay was down from past years, all who participated counted it a success. The annual event is a community memorial, but also a celebration of joy and hope. Though there were solemn moments during the 18-hour marathon, survivors and their supporters alike maintained high spirits throughout.

Perhaps eight-year-old Annie Adams of Edgartown said it best, “A lot of my friends were here and we were just having fun, but I knew we were helping people with cancer.”