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Relay for Life: Celebrate, remember, fight back

It's March, a time for those tired of winter to hope for warmer weather, melting snow and disappearing ice - a prelude to another beautiful Minnesota summer.

For the Relay for Life organizers, it's a time of hope too.

It's a time to plan for the July event, hoping that we can continue to grow the already successful event.

We hope, with the generosity of the East Otter Tail community, to raise significant cancer-fighting dollars. We hope to continue to expand our year round mission program. We also hope to attract even more teams and individuals to join our effort.

Relay chairperson, Lisa Peterson, expresses this hope better: "The Relay is many things: it's community-building, it's what we can do about cancer - Minnesota's leading cause of death, but it's also a celebration of many things, like the lives of cancer survivors, declining cancer rates, friendship, and the joy of knowing that we personally are doing something about reducing suffering. We want you to join us in the fight too."

Every Relay in the world this year, thousands of them, will organize around a common theme: Celebrate, Remember, Fight Back. For this article, we have chosen to spotlight three teams, each exemplifying one part of the theme. We hope that their stories will inspire you and motivate you to get involved in our Relay for Life. It is teams like these that make the East Otter Tail Relay a success.

Perham co-op team has 'serious fun' with Relay

There is no team that celebrates the meaning of Relay better than the Perham Creamery team. They approach the event with an organized craziness that lasts throughout the night. To get the store, I talked to team captain, Ann Branby. "Each year, the team chooses its theme," she said. "Last year, it was 'All Things Pink Boutique.' We wore bright pink wigs and did pink things at the campsite. One year we chose to recognize our sponsor by dressing in cow costumes."

The second year after forming the team, Ann was diagnosed with cancer and became an honorary co-chairperson for the Relay. This year, the team has an added reason to celebrate; Ann just had her five-year checkup and she is cancer free! The team is a close-knit group consisting of Ann and her three sisters and many friends. "We stay up all night - no sleeping. At three a.m. we go out for cappuccino. We do keep busy." It's an all-girl team. "We used to have a couple of guys, but they couldn't keep up," Ann jokes. The have fun, but they are serious fundraisers too. They are already planning pre-Relay events, including the popular pork sandwich concession at the Creamery.

A time to celebrate, remember

The 'celebration' part of the Relay happens in the early hours of the event, from the beginning, through the opening lap, up to the lighting of the luminaries. Then the "Remember" part of the event begins. It's a more solemn, reflective part and lasts past dawn, right up to the Relay's final minutes.

The "Laughing with Laurence" team is a living memorial to Laurence Stenger, the husband, father, and grandfather of the team members. This team's activities center around his memory. Jim Stenger, the team captain says, "He died last year (2006) at Christmas. He was always involved with the Relay." Last year, they made a video of his life and played this for the public at the team campsite. Their campsite activity mirrored his love of music and dance. Marilyn Stenger, an accomplished accordionist, played polka music and one could "Pay a Polka" to get a request. The money goes to support the fight against cancer. Jim is working to expand their involvement in the Relay this year. They are thinking of building a giant luminary for display at the campsite. Their team is a fine example of a type of team often found at our event - the family team. These teams are dedicated to the annual event, making it an opportunity to remember a special person who has been lost to cancer or to gratefully celebrate the cancer survivor.

Three teams have done Relay for all 13 years

The 'Fight Back' part of the Relay for Life is what happens when Relay night ends - the other 364 days of the year. We have chosen on of the three teams that have been there for all thirteen Relays; the Perham Schools' team.

For their story, we went to team captain Lynn Lehman. Her story is common to most of us who have lost a loved one to cancer and do not know what to do. Lynn's friend lost her mother to cancer. Lynn wanted to help, but did not know what to do or say. On her way home from her class reunion, she drove by the track and saw the letters HOPE lighting up the night. She thought, "This is my answer - this is for me." She joined the school team and soon became the captain. She has been an important part of all twelve Relays since then. She says of the night, "The luminaries are overwhelming. They are both heartbreaking and heartwarming. There are tears. But it makes me feel good to be committed - fighting back."

Lynn enjoys all aspects of organizing a team - recruiting members, organizing fundraisers, and the campsite activities. "The memories come back each year - it's faith-enhancing," she adds. After her first Relay event, her mother died from cancer, living only twenty-one days after the diagnosis. This makes every Relay even more meaningful. Their team also has several members who have survived cancer - HOPE lives at their campsite. Under Lynn's direction, the team raised $8,300 last year - the most any single team has raised in the thirteen years of the EOT Relay's existence. Lynn's dedication is infectious. Two of her daughters are team captains too. Renah leads the Perham Memorial Hospital and their team, and Kristina, a high school sophomore, organizes the Care Bears' team.

Lynn concludes, "The Relay is not so much about money as it is about HOPE."

"We hope these stories inspire you," says Lisa Peterson. "We invite you to join us in celebrating, remembering, and fighting back against cancer."

Relay for Life date is July 11

The Relay takes place the second Friday in July - July 11, 2008.

For more information, call Lisa at 218-346-4747. The first team captain's meeting is Monday, March 31, at the Perham High School FACS room at 7 p.m.

New teams will meet at the FACS room at 6:15 p.m. for a short orientation meeting about how our Relay works. We'd love to have you join us as we Celebrate, Remember, Fight Back.