Relay for Life

Fighting cancer and celebrating hope

Story by Lindsey Wells, photography by Mara Kuhn and courtesy of the Garland County Relay for Life

Story by Lindsey Wells, photography by Mara Kuhn and courtesy of the Garland County Relay for Life

Now in its 31st year, Relay for Life, the signature fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, celebrates people across the globe who battled cancer or fight to put an end to the disease once and for all.

The difficult reality is that everyone has been impacted by cancer in some way, whether personally or through family, friends or co-workers.

Relay for Life of Garland County has been going strong for 18 years, having raised $3.5 million dollars to fund cancer research since it began, said Donna Kaye Smith, community manager for Garland County’s relay.

This year’s free June 3 event will begin at 6 p.m. in the Bank of the Ozarks Arena and Exhibit Halls C and D of the Hot Springs Convention Center and end at 2 a.m.

The theme is “Travelin’ Arkansas for a Cure” and each team will encompass something representative of Arkansas, whether it be a city, an event or a sports team.

“The executive committee just got together and we tossed around some different ideas and we thought it would be fun and people can really be creative here,” said Serethia Crawford, event chair. “You can go around the track and see that nobody’s the same, everybody’s different. You’re traveling Arkansas.”

Traditionally an outdoor event, the first relay was held in 1998 at the Lakeside School District track. After a few years, it was relocated to the infield at Oaklawn Park, where it stayed until successive bouts of foul weather forced organizers to find an indoor venue.

Susan Erwin

Susan Erwin

“Oaklawn has been wonderful to us; they’re wonderful supporters, but the last four years we were there the weather killed us,” said Smith. “We’d either have a drought and they wouldn’t let us burn the candles, or we’d have a monsoon.”

In 2014, the event relocated to a covered area at the Garland County Fairgrounds just two days before the event due to forecasts of heavy rain.

“That was the miracle relay,” added Smith. “Everybody loved being closer together and everyone said it was more intimate there.”

Event organizers worked with the staff at Hot Springs Convention Center, and in 2015 secured the arena and Exhibit Hall D for the event, which was a perfect fit, Smith said. This year, in addition to the arena and Exhibit Hall D, guests will also enjoy the use of Exhibit Hall C, providing an even bigger space for relay festivities.

“We’re under the roof, we have air conditioning. Our survivors are there and they can’t take the heat any more than us old people can,” said Crawford, adding that the venue is more accessible to those with wheelchairs and walkers.

“Last year, I had a lady call me before the event and she was very excited because she was going to get to come; she was allergic to the grass so she can’t go to an outdoor event. She’s a cancer survivor and was able to join us last year because we were inside,” Crawford added. Forty-eight teams have signed up so far and have already raised $90,000 of the $220,000 goal through fundraisers and donations.

“We raised almost $215,000 last year so we bumped it up just a little this year and I think we’ll do it; we’ve got more teams,” said Smith, adding that some teams are still fundraising and will continue to raise funds between now and the event. Smith and Crawford said that some of the fundraisers they’ve seen have included bake sales, raffles, a miniature golf tournament, dinner parties with silent auction items, painting parties and beauty pageants.

The fundraiser runs through August and a gala event will be held at Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa on Aug. 13 to wrap up Relay for Life’s fundraising year.

Haley Blumfelder, left, and Bonnie Johnston, serve slushies during the Garland County Relay for Life at the Hot Springs Convention Center on May 29, 2015.

Haley Blumfelder, left, and Bonnie Johnston, serve slushies during the Garland County Relay for Life at the Hot Springs Convention Center on May 29, 2015.

“We’re also going to have, on the day of the event, Dude Looks Like a Lady, which is a fundraiser with men that dress up like the ladies with all of the accessories,” Crawford said. “They just go around and take donations and it’s a big competition between them. Last year’s winner had a hairy face and legs and he looked great!”

Each team will have their own area set up around a track where they can hold on-site fundraisers, serve food and beverages and play games with guests.

Smith said most of the money raised by Relay for Life will go to fund cancer research.

“Since 1991, we’ve dropped 23 percent in the mortality rate, which is pretty darn good,” she said. “I’ve worked with American Cancer Society for five years and each year that I’ve worked it’s dropped a percentage. It’s progress, it’s good, and two out of three people that are diagnosed today will survive. That’s why we continue, and we’re going to do it until we don’t need to anymore.”

The cause is important to Smith and Crawford both, as they have each been personally affected by cancer.

Smith said that she lost her grandmother in the ninth grade to pancreatic cancer and was diagnosed with cancer herself in 2011.

“But now I’m cancer-free,” she said.

Crawford lost her father to pancreatic cancer at the age of 58 and her mother is a two-time survivor of breast and colon cancer.

“We’re the largest nongovernment agency that funds cancer research,” Smith said. “We have one state person that goes into underserved communities to help get people screened. We have a program right now called ‘80 by 2018.’ We’ve teamed up with 700 other health organizations to try to get 80 percent of the people 50 and over screened for colon/rectal cancer and we want that down by 2018.

“We work in so many different arenas to help find cures for cancer. Our bottom line is we want to build a cancer-free world.”RELAY FOR LIFE

American Cancer Society offers numerous other programs to cancer patients and their families, including free transportation to and from treatments through its Road to Recovery program, free skin care and makeup products and wigs through its Look Good, Feel Better program, and support for breast cancer patients through its Reach to Recovery program.

Smith said a special survivor tent, sponsored by CHI St. Vincent, will be set up at this year’s event where each survivor will receive a purple T-shirt and a medallion.
“We also do a hand-print quilt every year; they can choose pink or purple (paint) and put their handprint on a sheet and then we’ll have it quilted. We’ve got 17-18 of them that we hang and they’ll be on display at the convention center,” she added.

“We would love nothing more than for the entire community to come and celebrate — everybody has someone to celebrate and remember. This truly is Garland County’s event. It belongs to us; it’s ours.”

Presenting sponsors this year include National Park Medical Center, CHI St. Vincent Hot Springs and Weyerhaeuser.

Gold sponsors are Hot Springs Convention Center and The Sentinel-Record.

Silver sponsors are Relyance Bank, Regions Bank, Simmons Bank, U.S. Stations, Hot Springs F.O.P., Wilson Entertainment and Consulting and New Images Boutique. Bronze sponsors are Teen Challenge, First Security Bank, Arkansas Gastroenterology, Dodd Self Storage and Horn’s Outdoors.

Call Crawford at 622-0922 for in- formation about volunteer opportunities.

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