Celebrate. Remember. Fight Back. These words form the powerful mantra of the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) Relay for Life program. Started back in 1985 by Dr. Gordy Klatt, a surgeon who circled a track for 24 hours in order to raise money for the ACS, the Relays have been going strong ever since. With 15 years worth of fundraising through the events, millions of dollars have been raised for international cancer research. And with over 5,000 communities in the United States participating, it should come as no surprise that Fayette County’s own ACS headquarters is busy planning its own upcoming Relay.
“The more people who know about this avenue to heal hearts and fight back, the better,” says Kim Westwood, the lively community manager of the Fayette County division of ACS. With last year’s Relay pulling together 112 teams of participants, and consequently raising several hundred thousand dollars, Kim makes no effort to hide her enthusiasm for this year’s Relay. With 65 teams already signed up, and with participation from all Fayette County schools, she feels confident that they will reach their goals.
“We’re aiming for 130 teams this year and we expect to raise $430,000,” she says confidently, displaying her own fight-back attitude. All the funds raised from the Relay go toward international cancer research and numerous ACS support groups for survivors and families. But the Relays are not only about fundraising; the events also offer hope and staunch support for those affected—directly or indirectly—by cancer.
Participants and teams in the Relays begin with an opening Survivor’s Lap, followed by a Luminaria Ceremony where candles are lit to remember those lost, and finally the Fight Back Ceremony, where the rallying begins with overnight walks around tracks.
Brandi Simonds is the perfect portrait of what Relay for Life can do for those touched by cancer’s all-reaching, toxic hands. As a sprightly and elegant 9th grader, it is difficult to imagine that only seven years ago, she had her world ripped apart by a variant of the terrible disease. In 2003, Brandi’s mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cervical cancer. It quickly became apparent that treatment would not be a viable option, and within a matter of weeks, she passed away. Doctors hadn’t caught it early enough.
“When we walked into the hospital when my mom found out about the cancer, I was crying really, really hard, and I was saying that I didn’t want her to die. Of course, she didn’t think she would, so she promised me she wasn’t going to,” Brandi recalls candidly. “That’s what made it even harder when we got the phone call on May 22, 2003.”
Through a series of wonderfully serendipitous events, Brandi met Elaine Miller, a Delta Airlines employee, who was put in charge of organizing Delta’s own Relay for Life team in their county of choice: Fayette. At the 2003 Fayette County Relay for Life event, Elaine and other volunteers helped organize support for Brandi and her three siblings. After they met, Elaine began mentoring Brandi, taking the young girl to church several times a week and fostering her natural abilities and desire to sing. As time flew by, Elaine and her husband realized that Brandi had her own room set up in their house. It was the natural next step that they became Brandi’s legal guardians, and Brandi and Elaine have participated in each Relay for Life event since.
“Being so young, it feels like there just aren’t that many people—especially in my environment—that understand how everything feels, because a lot of them just haven’t gone through it,” Brandi says about her particular hardships at only 8 years old. “It feels like you’re alone a lot of the time, but when you go to the Relay, it’s like everyone understands what you’re going through.”
While it may have been the support that attracted her to the Relays in the beginning, Brandi has grown to see a broader scope of the event’s virtues. Each year as she walks in memory of her mother, she also knows she is making a difference in the lives of others through her participation and her strength. “If there’s a good side to being so young when all that happens, it’s that you can bring a lot of hope to people at the Relays. I tell my story sometimes at some of the Relay meetings and people still come up to me after and say ‘Thank you so much. That really touched me,’” Brandi explains, smiling gently. “It’s nice to see how much hope there still is.”
Brandi will be walking for her mother again this year in Fayette’s Relay for Life, which will take place April 30, 2010 at the Kiwanis Fair Complex. With over 600 participants and over 70 thousand dollars raised already, there is no doubt that Kim Westwood and the amazing volunteers and participants will meet their goals and soar to even greater heights next year.
Kim and her team are always looking for more participants and volunteers. For more information on participating, visit the event’s website at www.RelayForLife.org/FayetteCounty.