Each year, the American Cancer Society sponsors hundreds of walkathons called Relay for Life and, while the goal of these events is to raise money for cancer research, those responsible for putting the relays together say they mean much more than that.
“The power of Relay is so strong,” Leslie Orlovsky, the senior director of special events for the American Cancer Society, said. “I’ve been working in the nonprofit sector for 16 years now and I’ve done other walkathons but with Relay, it is so emotional and so personal, and I think people bond at these events.”
Relay for Life began in 1985 when Gordy Klatt, a doctor in Tacoma, Wash., raised $27,000 in 24 hours circling a local track.
“We now have over 5,000 of these taking place all over the country,” Orlovsky said. “It’s something people recognize now. I’ve been in the supermarket or something with my Relay for Life T-shirt on and strangers will just come right up to you because they’ve participated in one too.”
Orlovsky, along with dozens of volunteers, has been preparing for the 11th annual Relay for Life of Middle Village on June 22 in Juniper Valley Park at 4 p.m.
“I didn’t know about the relay until 2010, when I participated in honor of my neighbor Loretta DeVita,” said Alex Maureau, who walks with the “It’s All About Me” team and now works on the planning committee doing community outreach. “That first year, I loved the event, and it gets better every year.”
The team’s name is a lighthearted reference to a favorite joke of DeVita’s.
But Maureau noticed the committee had not utilized social networking sites to promote the Middle Village relay. So he approached Orlovsky and pitched the idea of creating a Facebook group.
“I sent out a bunch of messages to some businesses, not really expecting any kind of response, but many of them did respond and are participating or donating to the event,” he said.
“The gist of the event is that for one night, we give up a part of our lives for people who are suffering from cancer,” Orlovsky explained. “The theme being that there is no finish line until we find a cure for cancer.”
Teams of individuals representing clubs, organizations, businesses, neighborhoods and friends take turns walking or running around the track for the entire event. Ideally, one member of each team will be on the track at all times.
Last year, the relay raised $190,000 with 138 survivors and 60 teams taking part. This year, Orlovsky is pushing for an even bigger turnout.
In addition to the walking, activities are planned throughout the night to keep participants enthusiastic.
“This year our theme is beach party, so people will dress up and decorate their team area,” Orlovsky said. “People get really into it, and we ask our cancer survivors to vote on the best-decorated camp site and best costume, and we play games throughout the night.”
In addition to the fun, lighthearted activities, there are still a few Relay for Life traditions that are very emotional for participants including the survivor lap and the luminaria — paper bags that are decorated containing a lit candle in honor of a loved one who lost the battle to cancer — candlelight ceremony.
“The luminarias is the hardest part of Relay for most people,” Orlovsky said. “When we light those, it’s so emotional for many of the people there. For me, it’s the survivor lap, and I think for anyone who has lost someone it’s hard but when you see survivors, it’s an inspiring thing.”
“At some point, you know someone — either a friend or family member —who had cancer in their lifetime,” Maureau said. “It gets close to you and it’s such an ugly disease. Relay for Life is a mixed-emotion event. Lots of people have sad tears or some have happy tears but it is very fulfilling to take part.”
The Middle Village relay is still looking for volunteers. Monetary donations or gifts for survivors — gift baskets, gift cards to restaurants, etc. — are also needed. If you are interested in donating, contact Orlovsky at (718) 261-1092, ext. 5526.
Teams can sign up to participate at relayforlife.org/middlevillageNY.
Registration will remain open until June 21. For more information, go to facebook.com/relayforlifemiddlevillage.