Dr. Gordon Klatt took the first step in 1985, and today more than 3 million people continue the tradition.
Klatt, a Tacoma, Washington colorectal surgeon wanted to do more to help his cancer patients, so 23 years ago he appealed to the public. He circled the athletic track at the University of Puget Sound for 24 hours, raising $27,000 in donations — and the Relay for Life was born. Each year since, entire communities, nation-wide, have embraced and supported the American Cancer Society’s signature event, and Marco Island is no exception.
“It’s the biggest attended event on Marco Island,” said Cindy McCue, Unit Executive Director. Employees at businesses, neighborhoods, churches, schools, even individuals establish relay teams as a dedication to a loved one lost to cancer, she said, since everyone has been touched in some way or other by the disease. Each team has a captain who acts as a liaison between the director and individuals on the team.
“This year’s theme is Disney, and all the teams have chosen names that are takeoffs on that idea,” said McCue.
The night-long event begins at 6 p.m. on Friday evening and ends with the closing ceremony the next morning. For eighteen hours, relay walkers circle the track, then hand their wand off to another team member for a turn.
“We want someone on the track all night long,” said McCue, “because cancer never sleeps.”
Teams form early and collect donations all year long. “They work hard and are very creative in their fundraising,” she said.
In locations all over Marco Island, teams have sponsored car washes, bake sales and garage sales to raise money. Julie and Bo Booth enlisted the help of Wesley United Methodist Church’s youth group. Calling themselves “The Flocking Flamingos,” their team waits until dark, then plants a flock of pink plastic flamingos in a yard along with a note that says, “You’ve been flocked.” Instructions on the note tell the resident how to donate and who to call to get the birds sent to another unsuspecting neighbor. It’s all done in fun, and offers a way for people in the community to get involved and contribute to a great cause.
During the relay, tents will be set up around Mackle Park to act as the teams’ staging areas, but also to sell food, drinks, t-shirts, jewelry — even foot massages and face painting — all for donations.
Nan Larsen had the idea of forming a relay team after she attended the Stride for Life last year on Tigertail Beach. Nan and her husband, Len, both cancer survivors, thought this would be a good way to help raise money for a cause so close to their hearts. Nan’s brother is a cancer survivor, as well, and their family has lost loved ones to cancer. The Larsens cared for each other through the trials of Nan’s gastric surgery in 1999 and Len’s kidney operation in 2004.
“We’re doing super now,” Nan said, “and our goal is to help others.” She rallied her friends and neighbors in the Monterrey condominiums at Cape Marco by mailing letters to the 136 units asking for help, even sending requests to absent residents as far as Canada and Germany. The response was overwhelming, and so far there have been 110 contributors.
“I couldn’t believe the response we had from people. I’m so proud of them.” Her team, “When You Wish Upon a Cure,” alone has raised over $8000. They have no formal team membership. “Anyone who has donated to us is a participant and is on our team,” she said.
The relay begins Friday evening with the “victory lap.” That’s when Judy Mayo, the 2008 Honored Survivor, leads her fellow cancer survivors, all wearing purple t-shirts, onto the track for the opening ceremony.
“I’m very proud to be a survivor,” said Mayo, “and excited to be in the relay this year.”
Mayo, a 14-year employee of the Marriott Hotel, was diagnosed last year with breast cancer, but knew nothing about the disease.
“No one in my family ever had cancer,” she said. After her surgery, as she was on her road to recovery and becoming stronger, her husband, “Coach,” came down with lung cancer. On the heels of the shocking news, Judy’s brother and sister-in-law arrived from Connecticut to help. Once Coach’s chemo treatments had been completed, Judy’s brother, the same one who had been so supportive of them, was diagnosed with lymphoma. This year, Judy Mayo was determined to do all she could to help others fight the disease. She’s the Marriott team captain for their “Finding Nemo, Finding a Cure” team.
Judy’s daughter, Angela Piatelli, a 14-year Marriott Spa employee and team member, said her mother started early with her fundraising.
“Instead of Christmas cards, my mother sent out a really cool letter asking for donations,” said Piatelli. The women expected to get back contributions for $5 and $10, but were surprised. Many of the checks were for hundreds of dollars.
“I raised over $3,000 and couldn’t believe it,” said Judy Mayo. “The biggest contributors were cancer survivors themselves.”
The Marriott team is employee-based with approximately 100 people involved. Rick Medwedeff, Marriott’s General Manager is also Vice President of the Marco Island branch of the ACS.
“I’d love to see Marco Islanders participate with us for such a great cause.” He said not only have his employees been touched in their personal lives by cancer illness, but they’ve lost co-workers to the disease, too. And when that happens, Marriott employees come together and support each other.
Sharon Rotkvich, Marriott Spa employee, knows how much support like that can mean.
“I recently lost my father to kidney cancer. People I didn’t even know were making donations in his name,” she said. “I will walk in honor of him and all the others who have survived, and those who have succumbed to this devastating disease.”
Sharon’s husband works in the Marriott engineering department, and a special group in that division has formed to walk in her father’s name during the relay.
After the sun sets, survivors, caregivers and team members meet on the track for the traditional candle-lighting, called the Luminaria Ceremony. Designed to honor those who have survived cancer, it also serves as a solemn tribute those who have not. Judy Mayo lights the first candle, then leads a river of flickering lights around the track between rows of glowing luminarias. The emotional impact is powerful.
“Anyone who sees it once will come every year,” said Nan Larsen. “It’s very touching.”
Judy Mayo believes the best way to honor a lost loved one is to do all you can now to find a cure for future generations. Sharing your stories, giving support and allowing others to see you’ve survived and are healthy gives people hope.
“We need to have hope,” she said. “And every one of us hopes we can find a cure.”
To donate to the Relay for Life, contact The American Cancer Society, 917 N. Collier Blvd., Marco Island 34145 or call 642-8800 x 113.
Teams made up of individuals:
Snow White & the Seven Cures
Moms of Marco
Wish Upon a Star
Friends of Disney
Teams with corporate or group sponsors:
Dreaming for a Cure — Physicians Regional Medical Center
Bedrock Café — Bank of America
Banking on a Cure — Regions Bank
Sleeping Beauty-Once Upon a Cure — Comcast
Sascha’s Wenches of the Caribbean — Sascha’s Salon & Spa
The Hunny Pots for Hope — Bounce House
The Lion King Roaring for a Cure — M&I Bank
Flocking Flamingos — Wesley United Methodist Youth Group
When You Wish Upon A Cure — The Monterrey Condominiums at Cape Marco
A World of Imagination — Marco Island Charter Middle School
Disney High School Musical 2 — YMCA
Finding Nemo-Fishing for a Cure — Marco Community Band
Finding Nemo-Finding a Cure — Marco Island Marriott
Three Little Pigs Escape from Big, Bad, Cancer — South Seas Condominium
Walgreens (San Marco Rd., Collier Blvd., and Hwy 41)
Donations of time and money:
Fill The Cup for a Cure — Susie’s Diner
Marco Island Fire Department — First Aid
Pam Broad — Foot Massages