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A mission for heroes
Rockdale Relay for Life gets in gear with team sign-ups, fundraisers

Since 1996, Debbie Stewart, a cancer survivor, has participated 11 times in Relay for Life, and 2008 will make No. 12. Her mother, Betty Collins, who lost a four-year battle with the disease in January 2007, wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

"Mom and I did Relay for Life after she had been diagnosed in 2003. She did Gwinnett, Rockdale and Newton. She became very passionate about it. It meant something to her," said Stewart, the survivor chairwoman for this year's Rockdale Relay for Life. "She was determined to fight cancer. She was a very, very strong woman."

The 2008 Rockdale Relay for Life, set for April 25 and 26 at the Georgia International Horse Park, is gearing up with teams forming and participants planning fundraisers. The Relay is an all-night event in which team members take turns walking laps around a track at the horse park to raise money for the American Cancer Society, which provides cancer research and programs for survivors. The event is a bit reminiscent of a festival, with teams "camping out" in RVs and tents, participants selling food and raffling off items, and entertainers taking the stage throughout the evening.

"It's fun," said Joni Howard, the chairwoman of the 2008 Relay. "If people have never been to a Relay, they can just come out. It doesn't cost anything."

Even within this celebratory atmosphere, more somber moments can be found, such as when survivors make the first lap, which will kick things off this year at 7 p.m. April 25.

"To see 300 cancer survivors walking together and the look on their faces that we are here and we're going to show the world how strong we are, it's amazing and very powerful," Howard said.

At 9 p.m., the luminary ceremony, held in honor of those who have died from cancer, features a bagpiper playing "Amazing Grace" as he makes a solo lap around the track. Meanwhile, Relay participants hold candles as the names of those who have died from cancer scroll by on a large projector screen.

Relay is an opportunity for cancer survivors and their caregivers to network and share experiences, Stewart said. The 41-year-old underwent treatment for her uterine cancer at age 25 and, at the time, found few other survivors with whom she could connect and find comfort.

"(It's important to me) to see the success stories and know people who do make it through and that you're not alone, because for a long time when I was going to the doctor for my chemotherapy, I was the youngest person in the practice, that I saw, and that makes you feel isolated," Stewart said. "It lets people know they're not alone. There are other survivors and caregivers to talk to. Your story is unique, but there are others who have a story too."

Stewart's family participates in two teams: Betty's Bloomers for the adult members of the family and friends, and Betty's Butterflies, comprised of Betty Collins' six grandchildren, along with several other children that "adopted" her as their grandmother. Last year, the two teams raised a combined total of almost $10,000. Team members solicited donations, sold candy and gum, organized "casual" days at work to benefit Relay, and sold barbecue at the Relay event.

"I think my mom felt so strongly about doing the Relay every year that's it's in her honor. It's a way to keep her going," Stewart said. "Every year, she'd say 'Did you get your form in? Did you get your form in?' We knew how important it was to her."

Howard estimates that the Rockdale Relay has been ongoing for at least a dozen years, and every year, more participants join in and more money is raised. For example, in 1998, Rockdale Relay for Life brought in $38,000. Last year, the Rockdale Relay generated $260,000 with 74 teams and 1,400 people participating. Howard would like to see this year's event raise $300,000.

"I just think there's a growing awareness of what Relay for Life is and how it serves the community," Howard said.

What about those who have not known anyone with cancer or had it themselves?

"They will, eventually," Howard said. "Besides, the cancer mortality rate is going down but the number of people who are getting diagnosed with it is rising. Sooner or later, they will know somebody who's been touched by it. The whole premise behind Relay for Life is 'Cancer never sleeps,' so one night a year we stay up all night and we rally for our community and with our community and become one big family who wants to do nothing but fight cancer. We're all there for one common goal."

For information on how to join or start a Rockdale Relay for Life team, call Joni Howard at 770-616-2825 or Michelle Meyer at the American Cancer Society at 404-582-6114.

From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 16, a Survivor Luncheon at the Rockdale Career Academy will honor cancer survivors, who may be accompanied by one caregiver.

To register for the Survivor Luncheon, e-mail rockdale.survivors08@comcast.net. Also, visit events.cancer.org/rflrockdalega.

Contact Karen Rohr at karen.rohr@rockdalecitizen.com.

SideBar: If You Go

What: Rockdale Relay for Life

When: April 25 and 26

Where: Georgia International Horse Park

Info: For information on how to join or start a Rockdale Relay for Life team, call Joni Howard at 770-616-2825 or Michelle Meyer at the American Cancer Society at 404-582-6114. To register for the Survivor Luncheon, e-mail rockdale.survivors08@comcast.net. Also, visit events.

cancer.org/rflrockdalega.