NAPLES — Under a beautiful sunny sky last Friday afternoon, marchers thronged the track at Gulfview Middle School for the kickoff of the Naples Relay for Life. Cancer survivors in their purple T-shirts took the ceremonial first lap, the “survivors’ lap,” with two young men named Drew leading the way, performers filled the stage, and the Metlife blimp floated overhead.
Fourteen hours later, at 7 a.m. Saturday, a threatening gray sky grew light after a night of crashing thunderstorms. Walkers were still circling the infield, and organizers were folding up tarps, wiping off tabletops, and moving forward with the scheduled programs.
Relayers wore raincoats, ponchos, even garbage bags, as the diminished crew got started with the activities for the balance of the Relay. A hardy crew of yoga enthusiasts lay on towels under the main tent, led by instructor Cheryl DeVito. While Friday night’s musical headliner One Night Rodeo had performed with professional polish to a packed pavilion, on Saturday, as the sun came up, three young women with two guitars, Molly McEvoy, Rika Lively and Sage Gibbons, sang simple songs in the sunrise.
It was almost as though there were two distinct events, the evening carnival of Friday and the low-key awakening of Saturday, but the two were the obverse and reverse sides of the same coin. And coin, more than $500,000 worth, was raised in the event, all going to help local residents stricken with cancer, and to find new treatments for the disease in its many forms.
If Friday evening, with a miniature city jammed with survivors and volunteers, was like the “state fair atmosphere” that American Cancer Society (ACS) community representative Melissa Kahn described, Saturday morning had a vibe somewhere between Woodstock and a FEMA camp, post-hurricane. Those who had slept were rolling up sleeping bags and draining big blue tarps, while those who had been up all night were a little wired and giddy from having taken on the storm and won.
“We got a ton of rain,” said Kahn, one of the all-nighter crew. “People were doing wind sprints at 3 a.m. They were dancing — it was so joyous. The midnight Zumba was amazing.” At one point, she said, the crew had to move into the gym at Gulfview, when lightning was crashing overhead.
“Everybody hits the wall at about 2:30 or 3,” said Relay for Life chairwoman Kate Kerwin. “But our volunteers came through like champions.” Among many hard workers, she singled out Juan Aguirre for special mention.
“He rounded up all these FGCU students, and kept going all night. Whatever was needed, he was there.” Another stalwart group, she said, was Laura Hazelett and the Driftwood Nursery team.
ACS Executive Director Cathy Cleland said the event, particularly during the adversity caused by the downpour, was marked by “random acts of kindness. Café Luna showed up and said, ‘We thought you might want some pizzas,’ and just gave them to us,” she said as one example. Pat Eberhard, who said “I’m probably the oldest one here all night” at 73, served breakfast at the Trinity-by-the-Cove tent, as she has for 15 years.
Friday evening, with purple-shirted survivors circling the track to a continuous barrage of cheers and applause, was more the norm for the Relay, which Kahn said has never had to deal with rain before. The drumline from the Barron Collier High School marching band added a thunderous soundtrack, and the Calendar Girls, ladies of a certain age still strutting their stuff, were a crowd favorite. Two young men, Drew McAlear in his wheelchair, accompanied by Drew Meiners, led the survivors’ lap.
At 8 a.m., several dozen runners headed out on a new event for the Relay, a 5K run that finished up with a lap around the track. The Relay for Life concluded at 11 a.m., and fundraising continues for several more months. To donate or learn more, call the American Cancer Society at (239) 261-0337 or go online to www.relayforlife.org.