Celebration of life and love

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 20, 2004

WINDSOR – As the sun reflected heavenward off the many tents encamped about the track at Bertie County High School Friday afternoon, crowds of people made their way through an overflowing parking lot to join forces against cancer in the area’s 11th annual Relay for Life.

Surrounded by decorative banners, music, food and fellowship, 50 teams comprised of cancer survivors, family and friends, local church groups, schools and businesses came together in a cooperative effort to raise money for the fight against cancer.

But, that wasn’t always the case. The concept behind Relay was developed from the 1985 vision of Dr. Gordon Klatt, a colorectal surgeon from Tacoma, Washington, who ran and walked around a track at the University of Puget Sound’s Baker Field for 24 hours raising $27,000 for the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Eight years later, Bertie County held the first official Relay in the state. Starting with only 10 teams, participation has grown five times over providing a forum that allows a community to grieve those who have lost the battle, celebrate the lives of those who have survived and promote a network of support amongst those newly diagnosed with the disease.

With approximately 1.33 million cases documented nationally last year, Relay offers everyone in a community a chance to participate in combating the disease.

The overnight event, which lasted just short of 24 hours, began at 5 p.m. Friday and kicked off with some local talent offering encouragement through inspirational and contemplative vocals and interpretive dance.

Participants and supporters watched through squinted eyes, wiping sweat from their brow as they stood on the sidelines for a jammin’ rhythmic drum score performed by the energetic Bertie High School Drum Line.

After redirecting their attention to Bertie High School’s Junior ROTC for the presentation of the flags, the mildly boisterous crowd fell silent and turned their awestruck faces to Lawrence King for a soulful acapella rendition of the National Anthem.

Settling back in their seats for a warm welcome, the attendees inclined their ears to a message from Bertie ACS Community Ambassador and survivor Elaine White.

Standing before the crowd, White held open an inspirational devotional book given to her amidst her struggle through cancer.

&uot;When I was reading through the devotional one day, I came across a section about Job,&uot; she said, &uot;I thought about his steadfast faith despite the trials and testing he endured and how hard it must have been when the answers to his prayers didn’t make any sense and it occurred to me that the thing that sustained him was hope and that’s exactly what Relay is all about.

&uot;It’s where we all come together in one accord to encourage and uplift one another, celebrate life and combine our resources towards a cure for a disease we hope one day will cease to exist.&uot;

White added, &uot;When we see the survivors take that first walk, it is my desire that the hope dwells in them will cause an overflow of hope to spring up in the hearts of others where maybe one day people won’t have to ask what Relay is all about, they will know because they’ve experienced the event first hand.&uot;

As she stepped away from the podium, the angelic vocals of Celine Dion singing her Olympic themed hit, The Power of the Dream could be heard resonating through the outdoor sound system as the names of the 135 cancer survivors were read aloud.

&uot;We can’t always be there for you,&uot; said Relay co-chair JoAnn Jordan, &uot;but when you’re down I hope the mental picture of what you see here today will encourage you to press on.&uot;

Responses of the survivors varied from shouts of joy and humble smiles reflecting a sort of reverent strength as each survivor reached out to receive a balloon symbolic of their victory over the disease.

After the last name was read, survivors gathered together on the Bertie High School track for their first lap, reminiscent of the historic walk done back in 1985 by Klatt.

Like pillars of strength, they walked side-by-side, donning smiles as onlookers snapped photos and cheered them on.

The oldest living survivor in the group, Josephine Crawford, who turned 77 on Mother’s Day, privately shared her experience with cancer in a reception held in a nearby building to honor those who have survived their encounter with the disease.

In the company of other survivors, Crawford shared that she was a two-time survivor of the disease. &uot;I was first diagnosed with cancer in the late 50’s, but the doctors removed the affected tissues and I went into remission only to have a reoccurrence which led to an additional surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and the loss of a breast in 2000, but God has taken care of me,&uot; she said with a glimmer of gratitude behind eyes of hope.

Sitting beside her with hand on her knee in encouragement, 43-year survivor Alice Skinner-Lassiter identified with her sentiments. Maintaining a positive attitude, Lassiter explained that when she was diagnosed, only a few years after Crawford, there were no chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

&uot;I’m 65, but I’m still fighting,&uot; she said enthusiastically reflecting on the events of the previous year.

&uot;I have had surgery on my gall bladder and throat and lost vision in my left eye, but when my husband passed away, I almost gave up.&uot;

However, Lassiter realized her purpose wasn’t to throw in the towel, but to be there for others in similar situations to encourage them to keep up the fight.

&uot;I enjoy talking to people and encouraging them because I understand and I’m determined to do what I have to do,&uot; she said smiling with radiant resolve.

As the celebration continued into the darkness of evening with entertainment from the Mill Branch Men’s and Community Choirs and the Doo Waps, group chairs circled the track lighting the luminaries.

&uot;Each brightly shining flame represents a life,&uot; said Relay Vice Chair and Bertie County Commissioner Norman Cherry who has a niece and daughter-in-law battling cancer.

&uot;It represents the lives of those who’ve gone before, the lives of those who fight the battle with cancer as we speak and those who have conquered it.

&uot;Each flame represents a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, husband, wife, son, daughter, aunt, uncle, cousin and other relatives, friends and colleagues. For those who have passed on, the light represents the love we shared. It still burns for others to see, but burns brightest in our hearts and in our souls.&uot;

Cherry continued, &uot;You’re the motivation that drives us in our continuous fight against cancer and to those who are currently battling cancer and those who have overcome it, we support you, we celebrate you and we offer you the gift of hope.&uot;

The sale of luminaries made up for $6,120 of the funds raised in the event contributing to the total for the evening, which fell just under $10,000 short of the Relay’s $190,000 intended goal.

&uot;We have raised just under $181,000,&uot; said Relay co-chair Bobbie Parker, &uot;but, we have until August 31 to meet that goal, so we’re going to keep pressing on.&uot;

Recognition was given to the following groups in various categories with Center Grove Baptist Church winning the Pack the Track Award for having engaged the most survivors and Bertie Board of Education recognized for the Beth Cayton Light up the Night Award for the most luminaries purchased.

Bertie County Health Department and Home Health was recognized for having the best team spirit and placed first in Best Tent Decoration with &uot;Casting Away Cancer,&uot; while Bertie County Department of Social Services (DSS) was awarded first place for Best Theme with, &uot;Lights, camera, let’s take action&uot; and placed third for Best Tent Decoration.

In second place for Best Theme was the Bertie County Board of Education for &uot;Luauing for a cure.&uot; The group was also recognized for raising the most money for the event with a total of $20,575.97.

Placing third in the theme category was Indian Woods Baptist Church with &uot;Surfing for a cure.&uot; Bertie County Memorial Hospital took second place in Best Tent Decoration with the theme, &uot;Eradicate cancer forever,&uot; while JoAnn Jordan was recognized for being the individual who raised the most money.

&uot;Whether you’re a corporate sponsor or just the person who purchased a raffle ticket, every dollar puts us that much closer to finding a cure,&uot; said Jordan who raised $6,710 towards cancer research.

Bertie’s Relay has been in the top 10 national events each year and has been number one in the nation for money raised per capita for the past three to four years, last year topping $1 million raised for the ACS.

Bertie County also won the southeast division award for The Heart of Relay Youth Award and was recognized with a National trophy for the Heart of Relay for Diversity.

&uot;There is hope,&uot; said five-year survivor Annie Brathwaite, &uot;I know with God all things are possible. The best thing anyone can do is go to the doctor for regular check ups and if they find something abnormal to have it checked out.&uot;

If you or someone you know is struggling with cancer, visit: www.cancer.org for more information or contact your local chapter of ACS.