By Marisol Bulacio-Watier
Thirty-three years ago, the very dedicated and visionary Dr. Gordy Klatt walked a track for 24 consecutive hours alongside friends and family, ultimately raising $23,000 in a single day and giving birth to Relay for Life, the trademark fundraiser cancer walk for the American Cancer Society. Relay for Life began in 1985 in Tacoma, Washington, told us Lisa Noel, Community Development Manager of the Southeast Region for the American Cancer Society.
The initial walk, said Noel, was a total of 83 miles. Each of the 300 participants paid $25 to walk or run alongside Gordy, notes the American Cancer Society’s blog. Thus, Dr. Klatt’s vision to help those diagnosed with cancer began.
Relay for Life became a mission for many more to come, however, including Sarvika Bommakanti, Event Lead for the Florida Atlantic University Relay for Life in Boca Raton. “I have been an active Relayer since my freshman year in high school,” said Bommakanti to The Boca Voice. This year’s FAU cancer walk is happening on Friday, March 23rd from 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. where hundreds will gather to both support the fight against cancer and commemorate those who have passed away.
“My inspiration when putting Relay for Life together is and has always been my grandfather who passed away from cancer years ago,” shared Bommakanti. “[He] was so strong during his battle with cancer. I Relay for him and for all those who have had to fight the same battle that he did.”
While her grandfather became an inspiration, said Bommakanti, it is her parents “who taught [her] the meaning of family and how to take on challenges that benefit the greater good.” Yet, it was someone outside her family circle who pushed her into servicing the community and gave her the final incentive that made her join Relay for Life. “[M]y best friend’s mom, Mrs. Shoup…inspired me every day to be active in my community with both my voice and my actions and to inspire change and goodness in others,” she told us.
Both Noel and Bommakanti speak about the March 23rd Relay for Life cancer walk at FAU, Boca Raton, and share with The Boca Voice their thoughts and experiences.
The event is held each year at FAU. Why the university and why Boca Raton?
I think the event is held at FAU because the university brings a unique culture to the event. Being at a university adds not only a youthful element to Relay for Life but allows Relay to touch the generation that is considered the future of the world. By spreading awareness and showing how impactful Relay for Life is on a college campus allows the message to be taken with the students and attendees wherever they go and as we become adults, we are able to continue and take on the role of being part of the cure for cancer.
The American Cancer Society tries to be in as many communities as possible throughout the country. In fact, there used to be 5 events in Boca Raton at one time but over the course of many years, we transformed and consolidated the events to 3 events including Making Strides Against Breast Cancer.
How many people usually take part in the walk?
Usually, there are around 250-300 people that take part in the walk.
How does “Relay for Life” differ from other cancer walks?
Relay For Life of Florida Atlantic University is a collegian event bringing together the students, staff, and professors in coming together to Remember those we have lost, celebrating those who survived and fighting back against the disease together. The Relay For Life events in any capacity, whether community or collegian, can last anywhere from 6 to 24 hours. It is not your typical walk as teams, participants, and survivors line the track to walk because cancer never sleeps and either do we. The teams do on-site fundraising, they decorate their campsites, and there are activities and entertainment going on throughout the event to keep them going and awake.
How do teams get formed? Do individuals pick a particular team to join?
Teams are formed by amazing individuals who show the initiative early on to be a leader in the fight for cancer. Teams can be organizations on campus such as the Greek organizations, pre-health clubs, etc. or they can be comprised of a group of friends or even outside businesses and companies. Individuals are free to choose to join whichever team they wish to.
This year the theme is Disney. How do the theme’s work? What is their purpose?
Themes are decided by the attendee population and the purpose of a theme is to have the students have an opportunity to be as creative with Relay for Life as possible and to strengthen the bond that all of the teams have during the event.
What would you say is your organization’s most significant contribution to the community?
The American Cancer Society has many different local programs and missions dedicated to cancer patients and their caregivers. They have Road to Recovery were they drive cancer patients to and from treatment and doctor’s appointments. The Look Good Feel Better program they have wigs, prostatic bras, hats, head wraps, and scarves at the local offices for free for cancer patients to pick whatever they would like to help them look good and feel better when leaving the office. The Hope Lodge is located throughout the United States where a cancer hospital is located such as Tampa and Gainesville. If the cancer patient has to travel outside of their immediate area to seek treatment the housing program such as the hope lodge is available. They also have their cancer helpline where 24-7 cancer patients and their caregivers can call at any time of the day, 1800-227-2345.
Can you tell us a little bit about Luminarias? How did the idea get started?
Luminarias are paper lanterns that are dedicated to those who survived cancer, currently surviving, or those we have lost. It is an important part of the event and the most significant ceremony of the entire night. We turn out all the lights, light the bags with a candle, and walk in silence.
What would you say is the most rewarding about “Relay for Life” Cancer Walk?
As someone who has lost a loved one to cancer, the most rewarding part of the walk is seeing everyone join up together to fight a battle that was once deemed impossible. It is absolutely heartwarming and inspirational to see how much impact is made when students, faculty, and the community all come together for a common cause.
To learn more about Relay for Life visit the American Cancer Society website.