Relay for Life celebrated its 30th anniversary from 6 p.m. last Friday to 6 p.m. last Saturday.
In the dicey weather, 1,703 participants on 136 teams pitched their tents around the track at Mount Tahoma High School. They walked, embraced, laughed and wept with more of their friends and acquaintances than they ever thought had fought cancer. As of Tuesday, they had raised $492,430.22 for the American Cancer Society’s work in research, support and education aimed at eliminating all cancers.
Pretty impressive for a bunch of people wearing, among other articles of alleged clothing, tutus, pink cowboy hats with sequins, Waldo’s red and white sweater and hat, tie-dyed tights, plus business attire and jeans and event Tees.
Some came to walk, starting with the survivors’ lap, and its shouted vow to make this century cancer’s last. Those survivors, fighters and caregivers who walked waved at the crowd supporting them, and could not muster enough of the right words to thank them. No one minded. Everyone understood.
Some set up tents in the field beyond the track, and fund-raising booths around it. A person could buy a luminaria for a person lost to cancer, a caregiver or a survivor. After nightfall, those decorated bags would light the night with candle flames, and permission to let the emotions of the event out in the form of tears.
But that would come after the laughter, the joy and the fund-raising. A friend could treat a buddy to handmade earrings. Or a person with cruddy Taxol fingernails could have an Aha! moment and splurge on a back scratcher, knowing every penny raised would go straight to the cancer fight.
Most everyone wanted to hug Pat Flynn, the volunteer Mother of Relay who has been there from the start, there from the evening 30 years ago when Dr. Gordon Klatt staged an endurance run to defeat cancer.
Klatt, a colorectal surgeon and marathoner, thought in May of 1985 that he could raise money for the local American Cancer Society by getting his friends to pledge if he ran and walked around University of Puget Sound’s Baker Stadium Track for 24 hours. They did, and a few of his friends paid $25 to get on the track with him. Klatt called the event the “City of Destiny 24-Hour Run Against Cancer,” and logged 83 miles.
Local legend has it that he hoped to raise $10,000. The total came to $27,000.
In most any city in America, the event would have been a triumph all on its own: one overachieving runner backed by a team of overachieving donors almost triples an impressive goal.
But somewhere between fatigue and exhaustion, Klatt had a better idea: make it a tradition. Let everyone walk. Invite everyone to donate. Flynn bought into it and promised to help grow it.
That is where Tacomans stepped in, ponied up and ignited the international movement that has raised $500 billion for the global – and personal – wars on cancer.
Flynn and the Klatts came back the very next year. They developed a new model, and attracted 19 teams to a new venue; Stadium Bowl. This time the City of Destiny Run Against Cancer invited teams to rustle up pledges, bring their tents, camp out inside the oval and make a walking celebration of it. They raised $33,000.
The true Tacoma spirit - that happy combination of grit, grace, destiny and possibilities, sustained the walk until, in a happy irony, it outgrew its name. Other communities wanted to copy it, two in Oregon and two others in Washington in 1987, but they were not cities of destiny. The American Cancer Society trademarked the fundraising model as Relay for Life and helped it go international.
“Since then, more than 5,400 events take place worldwide, annually raising more than $355 million in the fight against cancer,” said Kimberly Dinsdale, Seattle-based ACS manager for media relations. “The dollars raised are used to help create a world with less cancer and more birthdays through local community programs, through prevention and early detection awareness, advocacy and through nationwide research studies. An indescribable spirit was felt on the track during that first event, and it has prevailed worldwide ever since.”
Those 5,400 events take place in 5,200 U.S. communities (including 13 in Pierce County), and 22 countries. Dinsdale was a teen when she connected with Relay when it debuted in Pasco. She stayed connected at the University of Idaho and earned a fuller understanding of how the funds raised work in the communities that donate them.
The Road to Recovery is one of her favorite ACS programs. It matches volunteer drivers with patients who need a ride to their chemotherapy, radiation and medical appointments. Then there’s Look Good, Feel Better, which gives high-end donated makeup and a class on how to use it, to patients whose looks have changed during treatment. The American Cancer Society website is a trove of resources, Dinsdale said, including a phone line that patients, families and caregivers can call any time, day or night, for information, or simply to talk. All of that is free to the people who need it.
Then there’s the research. ACS is supporting 21 researchers in Washington institutions, including Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and the University of Washington.
All of that can sound academic, or carry a whiff of press release off the Relay for Life track, until you run into and old friend, a gentle man who spends part of his vacation each year volunteering at a camp for kids with cancer. He prefers to keep his name out of print. He was donating $20 for four luminarias, one for a friend who had died, one for his father, killed by cancer, one for his mother, who cared for her sweet husband, and one for a friend who will survive.
He looked out at the stream of walkers – survivors, high school kids, crafters and twin lemonade stand philanthropists Jacob and Luke Alfonso, 8. He watched as nurses walked by and hugged their patients. He recognized docs, technicians, parents missing part of their hearts, and parents whose children are cancer free.
“I wonder,” this kind man mused. “I wonder how many people would not be alive if it were not for this event.”
Dr. Gordon Klatt’s Message to the 2014 Relay For Life
On Relay for Life’s 30th anniversary June 14, organizers gave its founder, Dr. Gordon Klatt, its 2014 Hero of Hope Award.
Klatt was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2012, and could not be at the Relay this year. Instead, he sent this message, read by his friend Harvey Rosen:
Good evening, and welcome to the 30th Anniversary of Relay!
Thirty years ago, I stepped onto the track at the University of Puget Sound with the vision to raise money for the battle against cancer. With the support of the Tacoma community and my colleagues, we have now grown into a global event. Each year, millions of people in over 23 countries raise much-needed funds and awareness to save lives through the Relay for Life movement. Relay has raised more than $5 billion to help with groundbreaking research and to provide free information and services for patients and their families.
My wife, Lou, and I are very grateful for all of your help with this vision. Without the dedication from all of you here in the Tacoma Community, we would not have grown to where we are today!
Let us keep fighting for every birthday that is threatened by cancer in your communities and everyone else’s.
Let us celebrate the survivors for what they have overcome and remember those who have lost to their disease.
Let us honor the people who have fought and are fighting cancer.
Let us thank our caregivers and families who have never given up. Let’s celebrate the 30 years of hope, and let’s finish this fight!