About 130 people hit the running track at Brother Rice High School last weekend for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life of Evergreen Park, Beverly and Mt. Greenwood.
The participants comprised 14 teams that each pledged to keep at least one member of their squads on the track for 16 hours from Saturday afternoon through Sunday morning to represent how the struggle against cancer never sleeps. They also honored their friends and relatives who have the disease, who have survived it and who despite their efforts succumbed to it — the latter whom event chairman Kelly Duffy said “are only here in memory.”
Organizers’ goal was to raise $23,000 to go toward cancer research and treatment, and the participating teams were just $1,000 short of that mark by the start of the first lap, Duffy said.
The event kicked off at 2 p.m. Saturday with an opening ceremony that included speeches by the event organizers and Evergreen Park resident Marlo Keyser, who shared the story of her experience with breast cancer. Keyser, who’s cancer is in remission, thanked the Relay for Life Committee for inviting her to tell her story, and emphasized the importance of getting mammograms and check-ups to catch cancer early on.
After the speeches, cancer survivors were invited onto the track to be recognized and receive their “Medals for Mettle” from the Chicago chapter of Medals 4 Mettle, a charity that awards donated marathon, half-marathon, and triathlon medals to cancer survivors “who’ve run an even harder race every day of their lives.” The survivors then walked the relay’s opening lap.
For the second lap the survivors were joined by caregivers of cancer patients, and from there the remaining 16 hours were given different lap themes including the patriotic lap, beach party, and hours dedicated to Halloween, country and disco. At 9 p.m., after darkness had fallen on the Crusaders’ stadium, the walkers participated in the ceremonial Luminaria lap to honor persons who have been affected by or died of cancer by lighting candles in decorated paper lanterns.
“The luminaria is one of the most important parts of the night,” Duffy said. “It’s really very moving.”
Participants showed their support and donated money and time to the cause, and many brought with them stories about their experiences with cancer. Lauren Kielbasa organized the event’s largest team — “Adam’s Army” — to honor her husband, who has been stricken with epithelioid sarcoma, a rare cancer found in the tissues of the extremities and which affects about one in 4 million people. Since being diagnosed in 2011, Adam Kielbasa has undergone radiation, eight rounds of chemotherapy and seven surgeries including one that removed a large portion of his right calf. He is now undergoing treatment for tumors in his shoulder and lungs. The 27-year-old Brother Rice alum has not let the disease keep him down.
“I always tell people it’s not the physical part that’s hard,” Kielbasa said. “The surgeries don’t phase me, it’s the emotional part and seeing how it affects everyone that’s the hardest part. Honestly, the scars on my body don’t hurt me, it’s the emotional scars that take longer to heal.”
In this, their first year participating in the Relay, the 30 members of Adam’s Army raised more than $4,000 by the start of the event, with more efforts planned before the official close of the relay fundraising season including a lemonade stand at the team’s relay campsite.
“I’ve been very fortunate not to need too much help financially,” said Kielbasa, “but I’m glad these organizations exist to help people who are less fortunate. That’s why we wanted to come out and give our support.”
Lauren Kielbasa explained that she and Adam had wanted to take part in the event last year, but Adam’s surgeries had prevented him from partaking. This year he was not only out of the hospital, but strong enough to walk with the team.
Felicia Alston and her husband of the “My Crafty Table” squad both have sisters who survived cancer. Felicia’s sister, Brenda Fitcher, was diagnosed in December 2010 and received a medal in the opening ceremony Saturday. As part of their fundraising, the sisters were selling custom-made pillows and pillow cases.
“When my sister was going through her treatment, she made pillows for some of the patients and she saw they seemed to take a lot of comfort from them,” Alston explained. “She couldn’t go to work but she was making the pillows to keep busy. Eventually I asked her why she didn’t just make a business out of it.”
That is, in fact, what Brenda Fitcher has done. She designs and sews pillows she was selling at the Relay to help raise money for the American Cancer Society. The sisters manned a sewing station set up in their team’s camp, and was making custom pillows and pillow cases for a $10 donation.
Not all the teams participating had big teams or elaborate fund raising plans, some just had a lot of dedication. “The Procrastinators: The Next Generation” was the smallest team participating with only eight members. It was also the youngest one. All eight members are either Evergreen Park High School students and recent graduates, and half of the team has been participating in the Relay since childhood, when their parents started the Procrastinators.
“The Putlakas [family] started the team because they had several cancer survivors in the family and the Townsends were on it with them,” explained Mary Dickey. “I wasn’t on the team then, but they kind of just tagged along. A couple years ago their parents decided they just didn’t want to do it any more so they kept the name and recruited some friends to help them keep it going.”
The team is composed of Dickey and her sister, the five Putlaks and Townsends who took part in the relay as children, and another friend. The members used their connections at Evergreen Park High to run a pie-sale fundraiser this spring that yielded $100 dollars. They raised another $192 at the Relay and are looking forward to continuing with the tradition in coming years.