Fighting through the night

June 11, 2008|By Shayna Meliker | Shayna Meliker,Sun reporter

Silence surrounds the track behind Hammond High School. The air is warm and musty, and it is filled with a sense of purpose uncharacteristic for this moment of silence. Just minutes after a long-awaited sunset, a sliver of moon lends just enough light to illuminate almost 1,000 people.

They are fighting cancer.

"Celebrate. Remember. Fight Back." was the message behind Howard County's 13th Annual Relay for Life, an all-night program that raised more than $222,000 for the American Cancer Society. Seventy-five teams walked for 12 hours, from 7:15 p.m. Friday to almost 7:30 a.m. Saturday.

Most people alternated running or walking with resting while their teammates took to the track, but not Melissa Simmens. The 44-year-old Columbia resident ran for 12 consecutive hours. At the closing ceremony Saturday morning, she said she kept reminding herself that cancer never sleeps.

"You have inspired me to come out here and show my passion and raise money for a good cause," she said. "I'm not the one who did the hard work. To be a survivor is truly, truly amazing."

Fourteen hours earlier, cancer survivors and their guests passed around dinner plates at the ultimate 400-person pasta party. Pink and yellow tablecloths matched the white, yellow and pink flower centerpieces. A crescendo of "celebrate, remember, fight back!" set the tone for the night to come.

Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the county's Economic Development Authority, was master of ceremonies Friday. He lost both parents to cancer, and one of his brothers is a survivor.

"I love to get involved whenever I can because this is just a great event," Story said. "It means the world to the survivors and their families, all these people coming together to raise money and tell their stories. It's a very exciting event."

Two victorious survivors laps, a kids lap, energetic music, a Moon Bounce and games filled the first part of the night. Then the loud camaraderie paused for the lighting of almost 2,000 luminarias in honor of survivors and in memory of those who have been lost to cancer.

The candles lined the track and the team campsites and spelled out the words "hope" and "cure" on the two bleachers. It took 20 volunteers four hours to lay out all the paper bags containing sand and a candle.

Nancy Wentworth of Columbia has chaired the luminaria committee for the past 13 years. She is a breast cancer survivor who became involved when she was facilitating a support group during the planning of Howard County's first Relay for Life event.

"For me, the luminary ceremony and the moment of silence is the most moving part," she said. "There's a name on every single one of those bags. Some of them are made by kids; drawn in crayon. Everyone's here doing this for a reason: They care."

Mark Eberhart, a 1990 graduate of Atholton High School, said he was also impressed by the crowd. In 1998, he thought he was signing up for a county 24-hour relay when he showed up with his 10-person team. Upon arrival, he found that it was an event to benefit the American Cancer Society. He has been coming back ever since.

Eberhart was diagnosed with cancer in 1996 at age 24. It returned in 2003, and in 2006, when he finally had to have his left leg amputated above the knee. He ran the first few laps this year with his prosthetic running leg and a grass hula skirt. His team is called "The Lifeguards," and members bring megaphones, guitars, a rickshaw and a 12-foot-tall lifeguard stand.

"Every year I'm here, it becomes less about me, and the more I feel there's a lot more to it," Eberhart said. "There's new people every year, and there are some not coming back. I just realize more and more how important this is."

Matt Beck, a sophomore at River Hill High School, recognizes that importance. He began baking triple chocolate cookies in July 2007, and he sells them to raise money for the American Cancer Society. Despite Advanced Placement courses and spending his evenings learning Chinese at Howard Community College, he spends three hours in the kitchen twice a week, he said, churning out about 300 dozen cookies over the course of a year. Beck was named the top fundraiser for this year's event, bringing in more than $5,500.

"My friends are surprised that I've done all this, but I've always had a passion for baking," Beck said. "For next year, I think I'll stick with the recipe I have already. My goal is to raise $10,000."

For some younger participants, it was not about the money.

Olivia Boateng, a fourth-grader at Atholton Elementary School, spent the night at Relay for Life. She lost count of how many laps she walked around the track.

"I just walked and chilled out," she said. "It was fun, but now I'm going to go home and sleep."

Another person who went home to sleep afterward was Meaghan Kordusky, this year's chairwoman. She had been awake for more than 20 hours. Kordusky became involved with Relay for Life through her job with the county's Department of Citizen Services, attending the 2005 event and serving as a team captain in 2006. She was the event co-chairwoman last year.

"I think this year there were a lot more activities and great enthusiasm," Kordusky said. "And there were definitely more survivors attending. The magnitude of having over 250 survivors, that is a success story."

Kim Bush of Glenelg is a breast cancer survivor who has been attending for the past three years.

"This is just a very important event, especially the survivors' walk," Bush said. "I walk that lap every year because I'm still regaining the strength I lost. But it is getting easier."

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