by CINDY M. CRANMER
Thousands of people joined together at Rockford’s Relay for Life to raise money to fight cancer, to celebrate survival from the disease or to remember a loved one who lost their battle to cancer.
Area residents could show their support in a variety of ways from raising pledges for walking to temporarily coloring their hair a bright color, painting their face, playing Plinko or other games, enjoying fresh squeezed lemonade, eating food items and baked goods, buying a variety of products, bidding on items at silent auctions or attending one of the ceremonies. The $347,958.72 raised will be used by the American Cancer Society in the fight against cancer.
The 10th Annual Rockford Relay for Life began at 3 p.m. on Friday, May 18 and concluded on Saturday, May 19 after 24 hours.
According to Shannon Ouellette—who served as committee chair for the first nine years and currently is on the committee as well as the City of Rockford and Rockford Schools liaison—the individual team that raised the most money was Team Terminatin’ Cancer. Their team raised $22,000.
Some people supported the Relay for Life by walking and gathering pledges or by making purchases with donations going to the American Cancer Society. Others just came out to support walkers or survivors or just as a show of support for the 24-hour walk that also serves as an awareness opportunity.
Deb Pomarius, one of the co-captains of the East Rockford Middle School (ERMS) team, was busy selling used books, duct tape creations such as wallets, cell phone cases and hair bows made by students Karlee Kaminga and Kaitlyn Schovey as well as jewelry made by Kim Klaes Jewelry, which donated several pieces, and other items.
ERMS was among the dozens of teams that had a tent at the event. Teams ranged from schools to businesses, to friends putting together a team to honor someone who lost their battle to cancer, to teams supporting a friend fighting cancer, to those who just wanted to do their part in the battle against the disease.
Brett Riebschleger, a seventh-grader at East Rockford Middle School, was among the 95 people who registered to walk for 24 hours. He was walking as he had a friend who was in remission from fighting cancer.
“If you’re going to do it, you might as well do it all,” said Riebschleger, who was 13 at the time of the event, and who was involved in Relay for Life for the first time.
Dressed in a bright orange nylon suit covering his head and body, the teen said he wanted to stand out and make a difference in the fight against cancer.
While Ouellette said some 24-hour walkers dropped out because of the temperatures hitting in the mid- to high-80s at times, she believes about 70 successfully completed the 24-hour walk.
The morning hours on Saturday were filled with cheers as walkers completed the accomplishment and had their name along with the number of miles walked announced. The goal was to keep walking and not to accomplish a set number of miles so distances walked ranged from 20-plus miles to 60-plus miles.
Rockford High School juniors Julia Dillard and Jordyn Hills also were walking because of a friend who has cancer.
While the students said they were tired and sore, and figured they already had blisters on their feet around 11 p.m. Friday after walking since 3 p.m., they said they continued to plan to keep going in their first year as participants as well as 24-hour walkers.
“It’ll feel good to have accomplished it,” said Dillard, whose father is also a cancer survivor.
Sarah Whyte and Chloe Haddad, sporting Team Claire outfits made by Carol Murphy, both said they were tired Friday night but were in good spirits and optimistic about completing their goal.
The two women were walking in support of Claire Kowroski, a fourth-grader at Valley View Elementary School who has cancer.
Both women have participated in Relay for Life, but it was their first year as 24-hour walkers. The women told The Rockford Squire on Friday night that they had a goal of walking 35 miles by the end of the walk.
On Saturday morning, the pair continued walking even past their timeframe until they hit 35 miles. Exhausted but extremely happy, the women were congratulated by friends and family as they completed their last lap and accomplished their goal.
“It feels fantastic,” Whyte said.
While many took strides in the fight against cancer, others were dunked or danced their way to making a difference.
Lee Badersnider sat in a dunk tank for Team Terminatin’ Cancer, which was a group of friends who started when a friend LJ—or formally, Lindsey John—got cancer. Even after LJ passed away in 2009 the friends continued their team, raising hundreds each year with their dunk tank alone. The dunk tank was just one way of raising money, as the team raised the most money for the event.
Jeff Dundas, a Rockford graduate, moved and grooved his way around the track for hours on both Friday and Saturday.
“I may enjoy dancing to Aretha Franklin, but I have no R-E-S-P-E-C-T for cancer,” Dundas said as he danced around the track to Franklin’s hit song.
Relay for Life also remembered those who lost their fight against cancer or were still battling during a luminary ceremony at 9 p.m. Friday, May 18. Hundreds of decorated luminary bags lit up the track as walkers completed one lap in silence after a brief ceremony.
The track was cleared of walkers before the ceremony began and then people carrying purple glow sticks took to the track in silence after the brief ceremony. Thousands of people filled the quarter-mile track while hundreds more who were working tents or supporting people lined the track during the lap. The bags that lit up the track overnight had everything on them from hand-drawn artwork or photos in memory of loved ones, to bags honoring and supporting those who were still continuing their fight.
Many people also were camping at the event and activities were planned throughout the night to keep people motivated so teams would have walkers for each hour.
Event officials said 24-hour walkers could participate in committee-organized events such as the scavenger hunt and ceremonies as well as taking 15-minute breaks each hour. Many walkers banked their time so as to walk fewer hours.
Walkers also stopped walking during a flag-raising ceremony at 8:30 a.m. The smell of breakfast foods greeted those who were just arriving for a day of walking while the pace had slowed a little for some who had spent the night walking.
Stacey Chrisman, 22, has been involved in Relay for Life in Rockford since it began 10 years ago. She decided to complete the 24-hour walk this year.
Chrisman said she was “exhausted” but happy at her accomplishment on Saturday. She walked 26 miles during her 24 hours of walking.
At noon Saturday, hundreds of survivors and their families and caregivers wearing sashes did a lap as everyone else stopped and watched. The survivor lap was about hope and celebration. For some survivors who walked, they said it was about hope that there would be a long-term cure for every type of cancer someday or hope that their cancer would go away or stay in remission. For other survivors it was about celebrating that their cancer was in remission and that they were a survivor.
“We all know someone who has fought against cancer,” said a Kay’s Krusaders’ team member, who was painting nails as part of their efforts to raise money. Kay VanHorn, a cancer survivor, started their team.