"I am grateful I'm alive," said Debbie Sullivan, cancer survivor of 13 years. Sullivan was Honorary Chairperson for the Bethel Relay for Life 2009. A Bethel resident who grew up in Connecticut, she said, "It's very heartwarming and emotional to see people come out and support one another. I want to give back."
The rain held off, the clouds parted, and the sun came out just as the ceremony began, this past Saturday, June 9, at the American Cancer Society Bethel Relay for Life 2012.
Relay For Life is an annual event that honors cancer survivors and those who have lost their lives to cancer. Many volunteers in the community spend months fundraising and preparing for this special event. Funds go to cancer research to find a cure, and for programs to help people stay healthy as well as guide them through cancer treatment.
The survivors and caregivers entered the Bethel High School Track and took their seats, center field, in front of the stage, as large crowds of supporters applauded.
Bethel resident Michael Dragone, this year's Honorary Chairperson, arrived with his wife and son by his side. He said "I was diagnosed in October 2011. They found it [cancer] by accident when doing a CAT scan for another reason. They found a tumor on my right kidney. It was stage 1. I had surgery but I did not need radiation. I feel guilty because mine was so short compared to others."
The top fundraising team, "The Pink Ladies," received a trophy for raising over $15,000. Team member Mary Beth Cooke said that some of their more successful fundraising methods included a spaghetti dinner at St. Thomas Church in Bethel, that raised approximately $700-1000, and a multi-family tag sale that brought in about $1000. "This is the sixth year we have been named a top team," Mary Beth said.
"This year is the most meaningful because we lost one member last year," Mary Beth said. "Denise Hermansen passed away in August 2011. She died of breast cancer at age 40 and had been fighting cancer since she was a teen."
A special plaque was awarded by the American Cancer Society to Boehringer Ingelheim (BI) for their many years of support and sponsorship.
The top fundraising individual wass "BI Bees" Team, with member Doris Peterson, an administrative assistant for BI, raising $8,170. She said she raised the funds mainly by emailing friends, family and coworkers, and that they were very generous. Peterson lost her son Tom, age 35, six years ago.
Event Chairperson Stacey Ashby said, "This is the first year I am doing this. The most difficult thing is learning the ropes and making sure everything is done. We had monthly meetings with committee members and planning started in November 2011." She added, "The most fun part was seeing everything come together."
Marieclaire Quine, a member of the Event Planning Committee, said, "Reminding people to come out is important, the people in this town really help. Kids can get community service, too." She added, "Corporate sponsors are small but everyone has a good attitude and donates."
Entertainment and activities were provided by many local groups.
The Bethel Winter Guard did a very lively opening dance routine, "Let's Get This Party Started," tossing colorful flags in the air and spinning around on the lawn.
Later, two instructors from Sportsplex lead large groups of participants in two high energy exercise routines called "Sh'Bam" (purple glove dance) and "Body Attack."
The frozen T-shirt contest was very popular and had many participants. T-shirts had been folded as small as possible and frozen for several days. Teams of two or more could only use one hand each to pull apart the shirt until one player could put the shirt on. The T-shirts were a real challenge to open, and some people poured water on them to help. Some tried warming them with body heat, others simply hit them against the ground. Three winners were chosen, and included in the prizes were new, and dry, sweatshirts.
Gilleoghan Irish Dance performed on the stage in beautiful ornate costumes, with girls in upswept curls and elaborate hair ornaments. Boys and girls managed to do high kicks despite limited stage space.
The cancer survivor group was invited to stand in front of the stage, in rows facing the stage, according to length of survival years, starting with one year (newly diagnosed) and going up to thirty-plus years.
The first row was asked to turn and face the second row, and were told that they were "their hope." This continued until all were survivors were facing the audience. Applause ensued.
The longest survivors held the Relay for Life purple banner and the Knights of Columbus Color Guard lead the way as the Survivor Lap around the track began. A purple and white balloon arch awaited them. Caregivers and supporters soon joined the walk. Fundraising team members made sure they had someone walking the laps at all times during the night.
Thirty-three year cancer survivor Joyce Bennett from Danbury said she's been coming to this event for 4 years. She said, "I love it. It's a fun thing to go to, to raise money for the cancer. I like seeing the same people coming here. Survivors are still survivors."
Joyce Bennett's caregiver Cathy Jasmine said they've been friends since 1977 and they first met in a grocery store where they both had worked. This is her second year attending the Bethel Relay for Life. "I never realized what it was, I was very impressed." Cathy said.
The Luminaria ceremony began at darkness, as a row of volunteers stood on the stage holding Luminaria bags, "lit" one by one, with glow sticks.
A walk past Luminaria bags lining the track completed the Luminaria Ceremony, as people walked with their lit glow sticks, in silence.
The words on four large Luminaria bag replicas in front of the stage were also lit, and read "Hope, Celebrate, Remember" and "Fight Back."
The slogan on a banner in the stands read "There is no finish line until we find a cure."