Relay for Life Nothing surprises these cancer survivorsJeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Richard Swenson and Jade Johnson embrace after Swenson’s surprise marriage proposal during the Relay for Life at Montpelier High School.
MONTPELIER —It’s hard to be taken by surprise at the Central Vermont Relay for Life. When you’ve got participants in purple tinsel wigs, full-on firefighter rigs, and dragonfly wings fluttering behind their backs, the unusual can start to seem commonplace.
And that’s before the dunk tank, theme laps, midnight games and karaoke.
So when Jade Johnson and the rest of the Weasels crew headed into the backstretch of the track at Montpelier High School, only to find their passage blocked by a phalanx of official orange T-shirted committee members, she figured it was just another prank.
You could see the confusion on her face when the line suddenly broke and boyfriend Richard Swenson, co-chairman of the American Cancer Society fundraiser, started to dance towards her with a wide grin.
Johnson busted out a million-watt smile in return as she walked towards him. And then she noticed the box in his hand.
Before she could wipe the shock off her face Swenson had dropped to one knee in front of her. There was a whispered question...and a resounding “Yes,” as the surrounding crowd burst into whoops and cheers.
“I’ve been planning this for the last three months,” said Swenson, a two-time cancer survivor, as he and Johnson were squeezed by an onslaught of well-wishers. “I’m amazed that we were able to keep it a secret.”
The event where cancer survivors, caretakers, friends and families gather to celebrate those who have survived and remember those who have gone discourages secrets by its very existence, say organizers.
Instead there is a an openness and common understanding that is held by all who participate. Survivors and caregivers proudly wear banners proclaiming their status and everyone walks together.
“Cancer touches everybody” said Charlie Litchfield, a co-chairman of the event, explaining the expansive camaraderie. “I first did this because someone I know was walking during the luminaria lap and asked me if I would come down and walk with her. The spirit of Relay is hope. It’s a family.”
The Montpelier event is one of more than 2500 nationwide that have raised more than $4 billion dollars for the American Cancer Society since 1985 when Dr. Gordy Klatt decided to boost the coffers of his local cancer society office in Tacoma, Wash., by spending 24 hours running and walking around a track near his home. Friends and colleagues paid $25 each to spend a half-hour with the doctor. By the time the 24 hours had passed Klatt had raised $27,000 and the event that would become the Relay for Life was born.
Today it’s a worldwide phenomenon following a winning formula that’s made it a central Vermont tradition for more than a decade. It works like this: Prior to Relay night individuals and teams pick a name and set fundraising goals. The event itself takes place over 12 hours, during which time team members, alone or together, will walk around the track.
Teams hold bake sales and raffle off everything from quilts to gift baskets before and during the event, all to raise funds to help in the fight against cancer. Tents and campers line the infield to offer respite for walkers who need to “catch a few Z’s” during the event.
That is, if they can sleep during the raucous Rio Carnivale lap scheduled to begin at 1 in the morning.
“We’ve got light-up braids that we’re going to attach to our hair,” said Deborah Lamoy, a nurse with a team called the Eradicators. “It really cools off when the sun goes down. We’ve got our costumes and we’re ready to go.”
The relay manages to segue seamlessly from joyous celebration to heartfelt longing and sadness in the space of a lap. One lap encourages participants to dress as Disney characters or famous sports figures; another lap calls for teams to represent different countries.
But if there is a single walk around the track that defines the relay, it is the luminaria lap. Prior to the start of the relay people can make a small donation and be given a luminaria to be lit during the walk.
The paper bags with candles inside are often decorated with photos and other remembrances— “In honor of Memere,” “For Betty with love,” “Grandpa, We Miss You.” As the sun sinks and the lamps are lit, a hush falls over the participants as the teams slowly walk the track now lighted like an outdoor cathedral. Emotion swells in the crowd.
The Relay for Life is also a family event in the traditional sense, with plenty of multi-generational teams lining the field. There’s the Ella-vators, the team led by survivor Richard Pitonyak and his daughter Ella, a can-do kid who on her own raised more than $5,000 towards her team’s goal of $10,000, making them one of the top teams in the event.
“We’ve raised a lot of money,” she said proudly of her team’s VIP status. While she’s not yet in high school, she’s been participating in the relay since 2004. “We’ve been doing the relay since I got my first diagnosis,” said her dad.
First-time participant Maddie Audy provided the impetus for her family’s involvement. Her team, “Bert’s Troops,” was assembled to help commemorate her grandfather, Bert Tremblay. Her grandmother, mother, and a posse of cousins and friends are all doing the walk. But, says her mother, it was Maddie’s idea. “She created a website and went out on her own and solicited funds.”
“I really wanted to honor my grandfather,” she said. “I know that he’d be really proud of us today.”
By the crack of dawn 57 teams and more than 400 people will have taken at least one turn around the track. There’s been joy, tears, laughter, and fun. All the effort has raised $113 thousand dollars toward the ongoing fight against cancer — andall in a night’s walk.
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