Now is the time

The challenge in recruiting new teams to the American Cancer Society Relay For Life is that, for those who aren’t familiar with Relay, it seems a long way away. Relay events are typically held in the summer, and here it is fall.

But now is the time to form a team – and I’d appreciate a minute of your time to explain why you should form a team, whether at work, at church, through a club or civic group, or just among your circle of friends. It’s a lot of fun, and it can be a great way to honor a cancer survivor in your group or to remember someone special whom you’ve lost to cancer.

Relay For Life is two different things: it’s an event, but it’s also a year-round, grass-roots fund-raising program. Let me explain how it works. Let’s start with the actual Relay event. The event is held somewhere like a high school athletic field or a horse show arena where you can set up a circular or oval walking track. The event may be 12 hours, or 18 hours, or 24 hours long, depending on where you live. The Bedford County, Tennessee, event, for which I’m a committee member, is 18 hours long.

During the length of the event, each participating team must have at least one walker on the track at any given moment. They can divide that up any way they like, either through a formal schedule or (more likely) “I’m tired, someone else take a few laps.” The main thing is that someone from the team must be on the track at all times.

There’s more to the event than just walking – much more – but we’ll leave it there for now. The walking is symbolic, and the fund-raising isn’t tied to the number of laps walked or anything like that. But the participating teams do raise money, and they do it in three ways:

  • Team fund-raisers: One of our Bedford County teams has a tongue-in-cheek, men-in-drag beauty pageant. Two different teams are selling T-shirts with anti-cancer designs. Another is planning a fall festival. There are as many different team fund-raisers as there are teams, and some teams do several different things over the course of a year. This is why it’s so important to form your team now, so that you can have plenty of time to raise money between now and Relay night.
  • Individual fund-raising: Each individual participant registers at the Relay For Life web site, which gives you lots of options for reaching out to friends, family and co-workers. There are e-mail templates that you can customize to your liking, or you can start from scratch. By sending e-mail, Facebook or Twitter updates through the official Relay web site, you make it easy for contributors to come to your individual fund-raising page and make a donation, ensuring that you and your team get credit for it.
  • Relay night fund-raising: During the Relay event, each team has a tent called a “camp site” which serves as a hangout for team members – but also as a concession stand! We invite the public, not just registered walkers, to attend our Relay events. So teams sell hamburgers and hot dogs, or operate a bouncy house, or sell baked goods, or sell wrist-bands in the colors associated with different types of cancer. Again, there are lots of different ideas. Your Relay organizing committee will coordinate things so that there aren’t too many teams selling the same thing.

The camp sites give the Relay a festival atmosphere. There’s sometimes a theme. Last year, Bedford County had a board game theme, with each team picking a board game to use in decorating its camp site. For 2013, our theme will be “Dreaming In Color,” and each team will be assigned the color associated with a particular type of cancer and will have displays related to that cancer.

The Relay event always includes an overnight component, which symbolizes the struggle faced by cancer patients. A Relay event begins with a “survivor’s lap,” in which those who have survived cancer take the first lap around the track and are celebrated. That may be followed by a “caregiver lap,” saluting all of those who’ve taken care of a cancer patient.

The symbol of Relay, featured in a TV public service announcement that you may have seen this year, is the luminaria, a paper bag with a candle inside. For a donation to the American Cancer Society, you can personalize a luminaria to honor a cancer survivor or someone we’ve lost to cancer:

At some point after sundown, a special luminaria ceremony is held. All of the electric lights are turned off, leaving the track lit only by the luminaria (and/or similar tribute flames like torches or sky lanterns). Often, this is accompanied by a dramatic reading touching on the themes raised by cancer – love, struggle, hope, loss and survival. It can be a deeply-moving experience, I promise you.

There’s also a “fight back” moment during the event, at which participants commit to do what they can to fight cancer, through lifestyle changes and screening tests like colonoscopies and mammograms. (I turned 50 this  year, and I’ll be fasting tomorrow for a colonoscopy on Monday.)

And then there’s also a lot of fun, especially in the wee hours of the morning when organizers try to keep everyone’s energy level high. We play an enormous game of musical chairs, with the chairs located all around the perimeter of the walking track. There may be live entertainment, or an auction, or other fun activities.

Here’s some video that I made at our 2012 Relay here in Bedford County, to give  you a little of the flavor of the event:

This is something that you and your group should be involved in. As I participate, I remember my mother, my co-worker Danette Williams, Phillip Oliver from church, and many others lost to cancer, even as I celebrate survivors like Vickie Hull or current cancer patients like Don Ladd or Mary Margaret Willems. Your world has been touched by cancer too, I can almost guarantee it.

The American Cancer Society uses the money raised for research – life-saving research, which has been making great strides for decades. But there’s still a long way to go. ACS also has patient services like Hope Lodge and Look Good, Feel Better, and advocates for causes like having screening tests covered by insurance.

Go to the Relay For Life website now and find the Relay event in your community. And talk to your church, your co-workers, your friends about it. You’ll have a great time, and for a great cause. Relay’s slogan is “Celebrate. Remember. Fight Back,” and this is a chance to do all three.