Relaying Hope

FREWSBURG – The track and field area at Frewsburg High School provided the backdrop for the year’s biggest collaborative effort to fight cancer within the immediate area.

On Saturday, hundreds of participants of varying backgrounds and degrees of association with cancer converged on the school for the 2013 American Cancer Society Relay for Life of Southern Chautauqua County.

The event ran from noon to midnight, and was made possible through the fundraising efforts of individuals and teams. In recognition of those who have been affected by cancer in several capacities, Michael Porpiglia, senior director of Relay for Life’s Eastern Division, said the purpose of Relay for Life is manifold.

“Relay for Life, in general, is an opportunity for a community to come together and join in the fight against cancer,” Porpiglia said. “We celebrate the lives of survivors – we’re celebrating more and more birthdays every year – and, later in the evening when we do our luminaria ceremony, we remember those who have lost their battle with cancer. We’re also recognizing the caregivers that are also going through the fight with their survivor, and the importance that they play in supporting them through their journeys (by) giving them that hand to hold and that shoulder to cry on.”

Porpiglia said Relay for Life’s origins go back to 1985 in Tacoma, Wash., and it has since expanded into 21 countries. In its 18 years of being in the area, Relay for Life of Southern Chautauqua County has been hosted at several other locations in the area, such as Falconer Central School, Washington Middle School and Jamestown Community College – averaging approximately 400 to 500 participants each year.

The event kicked off with an opening ceremony, which was emceed by Mark Goshgarian.

“Whether you are a survivor, caregiver, team captain, team member, volunteer, parent, grandparent, faculty or staff-your presence here shows the power of hope,” Goshgarian said. “You’re making a difference now, and you are actively showing that you will be a member of the generation that finds the cure for cancer.”

The opening ceremony also included comments from Porpiglia and Dina Telford, who co-chaired the event with Krista Donnelly.

“One hundred years ago, the word ‘cancer’ was not spoken, and we lost almost all patients to the disease. (Since then), we’ve learned that cancer thrives on silence, complacency and business as usual. However, today on this track, we are ready to make some noise. Because silence won’t finish the fight, action will,” said Telford.

She added: “As the official sponsor of birthdays, the American Cancer Society recognizes its 100th birthday this year. And we have never been so ready to put them out of business.”

At the conclusion of the ceremony, cancer survivors in attendance were invited to take the first lap around the track – while holding signs bearing thankful messages for their caregivers. The event’s participating cancer survivors made up a large number of the events attendees, as designated by the purple shirts they wore.

In addition, several tents and booths were erected on the field within the track by teams participating in the event’s fundraising effort. According to some of the team captains, participation in Relay for Life can be motivated by different reasons.

Sue Laska, team captain of “Friends for Life – Relay for Cure,” said the team has been participating in Relay for Life of Southern Chautauqua County since it began.

“We are a bunch of people that work together at Heidenhein Corporation, MD Electronics, and we also have other people,” said Laska. “We’ve been doing this for 17 years, since it started here, because we have people we’ve worked with who we’ve lost to cancer. We have probably a dozen people that we work with who are survivors. Everybody knows somebody, or is related or friends with, somebody who has cancer. So our hearts are in it, and it’s special to us.”

Kris Swanson, team captain of “Team Jack Keeney,” said this is the first year she has participated in Relay for Life.

“We are very fresh to this, and we’re learning a lot,” said Swanson, daughter of Keeney – who passed away from liver cancer earlier this year. “We have a lot of new and great ideas for next year. I think it’s going to be an emotional day, but it’s been great so far.”

Suspended on the fence lining the track were luminaria bags, which were decorated by elementary students from Frewsburg and Falconer school districts. The bags were dedicated to both survivors and those who have been lost to cancer.

Midway through the event, the bags were taken down from the fence to line the track. Candles were placed inside the bags, and were then lit at dusk for the solemn luminaria ceremony – which serves as a time of remembrance for those who lost their battles with cancer.