Relay for Life: Marco’s ACS beach walk aims to ‘sunset’ cancer

Lance Shearer

Marco Island’s Relay for Life isn’t over yet. Yes, the American Cancer Society’s signature event took place Saturday at the beach, with hundreds walking laps around a circle of luminaria, the white paper bags weighted with sand and lit with a candle that honor survivors of the disease, and those who did not survive their fight. But Marco Island’s ACS unit has led the state for three years running, raising more funds for cancer research and patient support than any other Relay for Life in the state, and they don’t do it all in one afternoon.

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“We’re pretty unique,” said Sue Olszak, senior development manager for the local arm of the ACS. “We do a lot of third party events,” with fundraisers around the Relay for Life both before and after Saturday’s walk, which went from 3 p.m. to a little after sunset. That means there is still time to participate in this year’s Relay and add to the tally.

Upcoming events include the “Shoot Down Kids’ Cancer” skeet shoot organized by cancer survivor Gary Landis, taking place at Port of the Islands on March 21, and the JW Marriott’s golf tournament at Hammock Bay Golf & Country Club on April 23. Survivors, their caregivers and families attended a preview dinner Feb. 18 at Mackle Park, with food donated by local restaurants.

Once again, the Marriott team is projected to be the top fundraiser of any group, said Olszak. The hotel will also host the Imagination Ball on March 6.

“We love what we do – cancer has affected so many,” said JW Marriott general manager Sharon Lockwood as she circled the track. “We had a record-breaking Imagination Ball last year, and we’d like to raise even more this year.”

Another stalwart of the Relay for Life is Team Flamingo, whose members assemble a myriad of themed gift baskets, and raffle them off during the Relay. Team member Kathy Rawlings was “left holding the bag” – literally, as she held a bag with entries into the 50/50 raffle while Olszak drew the winning ticket. The ticket belonged to Rawlings, who promptly donated the money back to the cause. “Lulu’s Crew” is another major contributor.

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Despite a chilly morning, the afternoon developed into a beautiful beach day for the Relay, and then grew cool again with a brisk breeze as the sun sank into the Gulf of Mexico. ACS executive Lisa Honig collected some signs that had lined the track before the sunset, pointing out that with a moonless night coming, the beach was about to become very dark.

Another way the Marco Relay is different is that, unlike many similar events that go for 24 hours straight, the Marco event is scheduled for 3 to 7 p.m., allowing participants to walk and still be in bed by “Marco midnight,” generally calculated to occur around 8 o’clock. Now in its 16th year, the Marco Relay for Life has also moved around, back at the beach this year where it has been held years ago, with stops over the years at Mackle Park, Veterans’ Community Park, and the Charter Middle School.

As the sun set on Saturday, the luminaria began glowing from within. People took photos of the particular bag honoring their loved ones, or of themselves with it. Donna Cottrell took the microphone to exhort marchers to keep fighting, and keep hoping, for a final cancer cure.

“I challenge each of you to find the passion, the fire in the belly, to overcome. We are overcoming this disease,” she proclaimed. The final lap had people boogying around the track to the sounds of Pharrell’s “Happyness” song.

Robert J. Flugger is once again the Relay for Life’s presenting sponsor, and Cathy Nelson repeated as event chair. Last year the Relay raised over $400,000. This year’s goal is $350,000, and Olszak expects to exceed it.

To make a contribution for Marco Island’s Relay for Life – and have it credited to the island’s total – go to the ACS Marco office at 583 Tallwood St., call 239-642-8800, or go online to