Early Saturday morning, students, faculty and community members flooded Toomey Field to kick off UC Davis‘ sixth annual Relay for Life.
On the bleachers, candles spelling out the word “hope” set the theme for the 24-hour relay-style marathon event, which lasted from 10 a.m. Saturday to 10 a.m. Sunday. Students raised money for the American Cancer Society (ACS) to fund cancer research and advocacy.
“It’s the [American Cancer Society’s] nationwide signature event,” explained Relay for Life co-chair Chelsea Fahr, a senior international relations and communication double major. “And it’s worldwide – it’s such a great event to be a part of, because you know that people are all around the globe fighting the same fight.“
By press time, Relay for Life had raised at least $106,000, and a final total is anticipated to be much higher as this week’s post-event fundraisers take place and online donations continue to filter in.
In the past five years, UC Davis Relay for Life has gathered nearly $700,000 in total, earning the spot as top college relay in California. But for most students, reasons for participating were much more personal than simply fundraising.
Fahr walked for her friend Jackie, who passed away from cancer during Fahr’s freshman year of high school.
“Jackie’s my reason for doing it … during Relay for Life; we remember those we’ve lost, honor those who are currently battling cancer and also those who have won the fight,” Fahr explained.
A total of 209 teams with eight to 15 members each took part, breaking last year’s record of 165 teams. The event totaled just over 2,200 registered participants (last year’s number was 1,700), and hundreds more from the public came to observe throughout the day. The overflow of tents saturating Toomey Field required organizers to set up additional locations on the adjacent A Street Field.
Teams set up bake sales, carnival games, snow-cone booths and other attractions to raise funds on site. Some kept running tallies of their total laps on poster-boards attached to their tents, while others created T-shirts for the occasion.
Haley Benson, a junior psychology major and member development chair for Delta Delta Delta, organized the sorority’s participation in the event. The girls donned “Relay Disco Team” T-shirts and some wore beads and even afros to make their theme complete.
“We do it every year; being a part of Davis Relay for Life is really inspiring because so many people come out for it, and it’s especially nice to have a chapter that is so incredibly involved. It’s a great bonding experience – we’re giving back to such a good cause, and at the same time we get to bond with our sisters,” Benson said.
Delta Delta Delta fielded the largest entry in this year’s relay, with a total of 54 sisters in four separate teams.
Like Fahr and thousands of others, Benson’s enthusiasm was rooted in personal experience.
“My grandpa was diagnosed with cancer about seven years ago. He’s a survivor; he’s one of the best people in my life, and has been there for me as a friend, a mentor and a role model. He’s a proud survivor, and it’s his fifth year cancer free,” Benson said. “Relay is a constant reminder that people every day are going through this.”
The event was inaugurated with an opening ceremony and kick-off lap by cancer survivors. Throughout the day, individual speakers, bands, dance groups and solo singers took turns entertaining participants as they jogged or walked around the track.
Luminaria, also known as the Ceremony of Hope, took place at 9 p.m. and was a favorite experience for many.
Individual candles lining the inner perimeter, as well as the candles spelling out “hope” and “cure” on the bleachers, were lit. Each candle represented a survivor, or someone who had lost the battle. It was a somber moment of reflection, concluding a day of high-energy enthusiasm.
“It’s kind of an emotional rollercoaster. Being here is so exciting, [and] it’s so emotional at the same time. I don’t think I’m going to sleep – I can’t even close my eyes,” said Neda Mitkova, team captain coordinator, Saturday night.
“The whole thing is amazing – watching Luminaria at the end, it was amazing seeing all the people, all of those who have survived or lost a battle. It’s amazing to see how much everyone is willing to do to raise money, try and find a cure, and most of all, have hope,” added Deepak Yadaz, a senior neurobiology, physiology and behavior major.
For Kirollos “Cookie” Gendi, a sophomore neurobiology, physiology and behavior major, Luminaria was particularly meaningful.
“One of my good friends, Claire, was speaking, and the singers sang with a lot of passion. Not much else would bring tears to my eyes, but that did,” he said.
Gendi was diagnosed with Ewing‘s sarcoma, a cancer of the bone. Chemotherapy was agonizing; he suffered regularly from nausea, lost his hair and required constant blood transfusions.
“[Chemotherapy] eats you from the inside out… My parents were terrified, my mom especially– when the doctors first told her, I remember she started bawling. It’s one of those things you can’t protect your kids from,” Gendi said.
UC Davis Relay for Life was organized by UC Davis‘ Colleges Against Cancer chapter, a student division of the ACS. A committee of approximately 35 members met biweekly fall and winter quarter planning the events, and dozens more volunteered their time staffing the event.
Mitkova credited the event’s success to teamwork.
“We have a really big committee, and we’ve gotten to know each other really well and we work well together; it’s such an awesome group of people that made it happen,” Mitkova said.
The event ended with a closing ceremony, where prizes were awarded to teams that excelled in various categories.
As 10 a.m. Sunday came and went, the hundreds of individuals who had given 24 hours of their lives to the cause – many without sleep – packed up their tents and belongings, recycled their trash and left the field to resume their lives. But for some, the fight continued.
“Even if one person picks up your story, and gets checked [for cancer], mission accomplished,” Gendi said. “We’ve known the horrors of cancer first-hand. Nobody deserves cancer.”
Those interested may continue to donate through post-event fundraisers taking place this week. Visit relayforlife.org/ucdavisca for more details.
ANDRE LEE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.