‘Dream Big. Hope Big. Relay Big.’

I got pulled over by a crazy woman Friday morning.

I was on U.S. 231, just south of Murfreesboro, when the car behind me honked at me, zipped around in front of me, dropped back behind me again. The driver then started motioning for me to pull over – and it was at that point that I recognized the irrepressible Judi Burton.

V__14F5Judi and I were headed to the same place – the American Cancer Society Relay For Life Mid-South Division Leadership Summit at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville. She suggested that we drop my car off in Murfreesboro and carpool the rest of the way – but I’d have to find a different way home because she was going to have to leave early on Saturday.

You’d have to know Judi, a hairdresser who has been involved in the American Cancer Society, the local “Hee Haw & Howdy” cancer benefit, and Relay For Life for many years.

Anyway, we left my car at Kroger in Murfreesboro and continued on to what most of us still refer to as just the Opryland Hotel.


The summit was a gathering of 1,200 Relay volunteers – some from relay event planning committees, others from particularly-active Relay teams – from Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. A year ago, my first meeting as a member of the Bedford County relay committee fell on the week after the summit, and I still remember how excited and pumped up the people who had been to the summit were.

WP_000123It was a fine event, and I’m delighted to have had the chance to go. In addition to me and Judi, the Bedford County delegation included our committee chairman Rodney Simmons and his wife Dawn, who is also a committee member; Jennifer Smith and Sharon Wachala of the Writeaways, one of Bedford County’s top Relay teams. (Jennifer and Sharon were good enough to give me a ride back to Murfreesboro this afternoon.)

The event was, like many conferences, divided into general sessions and breakout sessions. The general sessions tended to be more motivational than informational – we heard inspiring stories from cancer survivors whom ACS has termed “Heroes of Hope,” for example. A girl appeared on stage and sang a remarkable rendition of “This Little Light of Mine,” a song we sometimes use at Relay, then told her own story – she’s blind, as the result of a cancer near her optic nerve. The general sessions also featured awards and recognition of outstanding Relay events and teams, and a testimonial from a medical researcher whose work is funded by ACS.

Every time we entered the big ballroom for one of those general sessions or meals, we’d find a new little Relay souvenir at each place setting – a clipboard one time, a water bottle, a tote V__C920bag, a little plastic luminaria, and so on. We got bandanas which were color-coded to our state (Tennessee was tan, for some reason) to wear during the event, as you can see in one of the photos here. There was also a “Relay mall” selling every conceivable Relay or cancer-related shirt and a huge variety of imprinted novelty items.

The breakout sessions were more informational. Your sessions were pre-assigned based on your volunteer function or how you’d been referred by the ACS staff member who invited you. On Friday, I had a session on making one-on-one asks of potential volunteers, something I’m not particularly good at, and I didn’t get much out of the session to change that. But my second breakout was on running kickoff events or team captain meetings that will be useful and inviting to the team captains. Both of my breakouts this morning had to do with explaining the work of ACS and its many distinctive programs, in research, education, advocacy, and patient services.

The conference, much like a Relay event itself, was fun and informal – on Saturday night, we were encouraged to dress “big,” and there were some hilarious costumes, three-foot-tall hairdos and what have you. (I wimped out, except for the bandana.)

WP_000106I made a joke on Facebook that of the 1,200 in attendance, there were six men. That was an exaggeration – but the ratio of women to men was huge, perhaps 10 to 1 or even more than that, so much so that the hotel had to temporarily convert one of the men’s restrooms near the ballroom into a women’s restroom.

I’ve always loved wandering through the Opryland Hotel’s huge and beautiful atriums. (One of my brothers once worked at the hotel, and one of his jobs was as a tour guide for the boat rides. A 10-minute boat ride, entirely inside the hotel. WP_000107That’s how big these atriums are.) At one time, and perhaps still, it was the largest hotel in the U.S. not attached to a casino. This was the first time I’d ever stayed there overnight. I was supposed to have an assigned roommate, and they even gave me his name when I asked the front desk while checking in. But my roommate never showed, and so I had the double room to myself.

Anyway, it was a fine conference, and has given me even more motivation to do my part to keep our local Relay event moving forward. I owe it to those who have passed on – like my mother – those who have survived, and those who are still in the middle of their battle with cancer.