Pike Relay on fire

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 8, 2002

Messenger Publisher

Mention Pike County, Alabama, during a conversation about Relay for Life, and Joe Cahoon Jr. is quick to respond.

"They’re just on fire for it," says the chief executive officer of the Mid-Division of the American Cancer Society.

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"They" are the volunteer organizers who spearhead one of the most successful Relay for Life events in the nation. Ranked in the top 25 per capita events in the Mid-South Division, the Pike County Relay last year generated $169,378 for the American Cancer Society. That equates to a donation of $5.76 per capita.

"They are quite impressive," Cahoon said.

He talks of volunteers like Mary Williams, who with Neditra Tolbert and Lynne Stone, was instrumental in beginning the Pike County Relay in 1995 and who remains active in the organization today.

"You talk to Mary about Relay, and it’s like you’re talking to her for the first time … she’s that excited about it," Cahoon said.

This year, the event is co-chaired by Williams and Donna Schubert, another long-time volunteer with Relay. And, many of the board members and committee chairmen have been involved with the Pike County event since its inception. Still, Cahoon said, their enthusiasm is renewed each year. "They keep attitudes fresh and new, and that keeps the event that way."

The Pike County Relay for Life takes place from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. May 17 at the Troy State University Soccer Field.

The Relay for Life event has grown into the largest fund-raising event for the American Cancer Society. It began in 1985, when a Washington physician decided he wanted to do something to fight cancer. A marathon runner, Dr. Gordon Klatt decided he would run for 24 hours in honor of the cancer patients he knew and treated. He solicited support through pledges.

"The next year, he was asked to do it again and he said, ‘what if we get other people to run?’" Cahoon said. What was a 24-hour relay in the late 1980s now is the 12-hour, overnight event that combines the poignant with the fun.

"You’re hard-pressed to find a community that doesn’t have a Relay," Cahoon said. "We have events that might raise $10,000 to $15,000 dollars and three events (in the Mid-South Division) that now raise over $1 million.

"Those $10,000 and $15,000 events are just getting started … In two or three years, you’ll see huge increases."

Last year, Relay for Life events in the Mid-South Division raised $28 million; this year, they will generate more than $33 million.

The reason for the immense success is obvious to Cahoon.

"Cancer touches everyone," he said. "You’d be hard pressed to do an interview on the street and find someone cancer hasn’t touched."

More important, he said, is the progress in the fight against cancer. "We may not have won the a battle, but it’s obvious we’re making huge progress," Cahoon said. "Mortality rates are dropping, even if it’s just 1 percent a year. "

Together, those facts make a "powerful combination."

"Then, you mix in something like Relay for Life, where cancer survivors are front and center … And if you ever go to one Relay, you’ll be hooked."

The survivors’ lap, which kicks off each 12-hour Relay for Life event, is a poignant time. "Many of the survivors in that first lap are five years, free and clear; others are in the middle of fighting," Cahoon said.

But they share a common bond in their battle against cancer – a bond that shatters barriers of age, gender, race, or socioeconomic status, just as cancer does.

"Cancer touches everybody eventually," Cahoon said. "They’ve never met a stranger when it comes Relay volunteers."

Even with the reach of cancer and the emotional ties, Cahoon said he sees a tremendous opportunity to involve more people in the Relay for Life events.

"If you go to Pike County while the event is going on, you can drive a mile, even a few blocks, from the site and still not see a lot of people who are not involved," he said. "I can’t think of anything more important than the volunteer lifeblood."

And, in issuing his "call to action," Cahoon said he would seek only to expand that volunteer involvement.

"We need everybody who is willing to do anything, whether it be on a Relay team or making calls," he said. "If people who read this are interested, we’ve got a job for them. We’d be happy to put them to work to fight cancer."