By Jack Kelly
There was an electric energy, and a little magic, in the air last Friday and Saturday, May 18 & 19, at the Gaudet Middle School athletic complex. The “Relay For Life Aquidneck” was held overnight from 4 p.m. Friday through 10 a.m. Saturday. This American Cancer Society fundraising event was celebrating its eighth year at this venue and over 30 teams of walkers and runners, totaling nearly 500 participants were united to raise monies to fund research and to provide services for cancer patients in Rhode Island.
The affair began quietly but kicked into high gear at 6 p.m. with the Survivor’s Lap and Caregivers Lap which was led by a color guard from the Newport Artillery Company. For survivors, this is a chance to celebrate what they have achieved while they inspire and motivate their community to fight cancer.
The Northeast Navy Band marched to mid-field and provided a stirring selection of patriotic and high-stepping tunes for the walkers and the assembled crowd of family, friends and other supporters.
At the conclusion of the Navy Band’s performance, volunteer DJ Sean Sullivan, of Bristol, pumped up the volume and had everyone moving to the beat of an eclectic musical selection. Kerry Seibert, chairperson of the event, was a combination M.C., Ringmaster and Head Cheerleader as the Relay progressed. She was everywhere at once, giving advice, directions and answering questions.
Survivors and close friends Joanne Benner and Olga Probert, both of Middletown, were enjoying a cool drink at the Snack Bar after they had finished their laps of the track. Probert, 84 years young, related, “I was diagnosed in 1971- there were five in my family that were stricken over the years with cancer and I’m the only survivor.”
Benner, 69 years young, was diagnosed with cancer in 1984. She and Probert met at the first relay in 2004 and formed a team for the following year in 2005. However, as Probert stated, “We turned it over to the young people this year and we help with the fundraising.” Both belong to the Spalon Strollers team. Both Probert and Benner agreed that, “There is not enough local coverage of this important event.”
The Gaudet complex was alive with team members of every age including many pre-teens and teens representing a number of local schools. Each team had its own colors and logos printed on t-shirts and sweatshirts with slogans such as “Kick Cancer’s Butt”, “Never Give Up” and “Fight Like A Girl” emblazoned on them.
Middletown Firemen, Captain Adam Westmar, Joe Mitchell and Chris Kane delivered a batch of their famous “Fire House Chili” and made a number of laps of the track, in their fire fighting gear, in honor of the event. They also made a pledge to be part of the relay for years to come.
As the early evening progressed, different themed laps and musical styles, entertained the walkers, runners, supporters and members of the gathered audience.
After a perfect sunset sent hues of red and gold across a clear blue sky, the stage was set for one of the most moving events of the relay, the Luminaria Ceremony. Throughout the afternoon and early evening, volunteers had lined the track with well over 1,000 decorated, white paper bags bearing the names of those who have battled cancer. Some celebrated survivors while others honored and remembered those who have gone too soon. Each bag was illuminated with a bright light stick. The teams, supporters and members of the general public gathered on the track in front of the main bleachers. Following a series of short, inspirational and soul stirring addresses that emphasized hope, celebration, remembrance and utter defiance in fighting back against cancer, the stadium lights were turned off.
Led by bagpiper, Bob Terlisner of Middletown, the assembled crowd of hundreds began a silent lap of the track lit only by the Luminaria bags and a blanket of stars above. The haunting, and poignant tones of the bagpipes, and the soft shuffling of feet, were the only sounds that could be heard as the walkers completed the first circuit of the track to the sounds of Amazing Grace.
When the stadium lights came back on ten minutes later, it was time for one of the most entertaining laps of the Relay, “The Misster Relay Lap”. This particular contest requires that a male member of each team dress in women’s clothing, and carrying a purse, the “Beauty Contestants” take a lap of the track collecting donations from the crowd.
The appearance of the contestants elicited howls of laughter and cheers of support from the crowd. One male onlooker commented, “They’re the bravest men I’ve ever seen.” With names like “Bubbles” a tall and big bleach blonde, “Ivonca”, a French maid, and others, the “Ladies” began to circle the track. After two laps of the track and a hysterical “questions and flexibility” session, “Ivonca” was crowned “Misster Relay 2012.” At 11:30 p.m. the music was turned off and the walkers and runners continued their personal journeys through the night in silence.
A brilliant, cloudless sunrise found participants still maneuvering their way around the track. Sullivan began soft musical accompaniment at 5:30 a.m. with the wake-up lap for those still sleeping in the campsites. By 8 a.m. the participants began to break camp and the final raffles were held.
Elizabeth Sharpe, American Cancer Society Staff Partner to the Relay and Seibert announced that the event’s fundraising had eclipsed the goal of $100,000 and had exceeded $120,000! Seibert, Sharpe, the team captains and all team members planned on resting for the remainder of the weekend. However, as Seibert stated, “Monday we begin planning for next year.”