MOUNT VERNON – At the end of a grey, soggy week, the sky opened up for Relay for Life on Friday night.
It was a night of tears, smiles and steps toward finding a cure for cancer.
GALLERY: 2019 Knox County Relay for Life
Knox County's 23rd annual Relay for Life took place on Public Square on Friday night. Hundreds of participants walked around the square from 6 p.m. to midnight to raise money for cancer research. Coming into Friday's event, over $32,000 had been raised locally to help fight cancer.
“It means we haven’t given up, you know? It’s hope,” said Jody Rutter, a member of Knox County’s Relay for Life Event Leadership Team. “We’re not going to give up until we’re done and until cancer is eliminated, so I think it just gives a sense of hope in the community.”
By the time 6 o’clock rolled around Friday evening, 25 teams and 230 participants had registered to walk around Public Square. Over $32,000 had been raised for cancer research and patient care programs; Rutter expected that number to climb during and after the event, as it usually does.
While organizers moved Relay for Life downtown last year, ending a 21-year run of it being held at Mount Vernon High School’s track, Rutter said there were no major changes to the event this year. The event was moved downtown last year to attract more participants, and Rutter said that objective has been accomplished.
“We’re a little low on teams, but I think the turnout was fantastic,” Rutter said. “Some of it’s probably the weather, but I definitely think there’s more people here this year than last year, so that’s really good.”
The night began with a brief speech from Rutter, who announced that Tammy and Don Lemley had donated two purple-clad floats this year for cancer survivors to ride on during the first two laps of the relay. Tammy is a survivor and a member of the Relay for Life planning team, and Rutter said she wanted this year’s walk to start in style.
Survivors rode and walked the first lap around Public Square together, to the tune of a standing ovation from friends, family members and bystanders. Caregivers, or those who helped a survivor in any way during the treatment process, joined during the second lap. The night carried on from there, as relay teams and individuals pounded the pavement until midnight.
A Luminaria Ceremony took place at 10 p.m. Those who had lost a loved one to cancer had the opportunity to light a candle inside of a personalized bag and place it alongside hundreds of others around the square. The glowing tribute served as a solemn reminder that the mission is not complete, and that it would take everyone present to finish the job.
Since its inception in 1985, Relay for Life has raised billions of dollars to fund American Cancer Society research. In 2017, 3.5 million people nationwide participated in the event.
According to statistics provided by the American Cancer Society, the U.S. has seen a 26 percent drop in cancer death rates since 1991. More than 2.3 million lives have been saved.
While Relay for Life has a global impact, those who participate in Knox County’s event each year view it as a local tradition. One of those participants is Chris Well, a retired Fredericktown teacher and school board member who walked in her 19th Relay for Life on Friday night.
Well has survived two bouts with cancer; she beat breast cancer in the early 2000s, then pancreatic cancer in 2016. She went through chemotherapy each time and said she felt lucky to survive.
Walking around Public Square after the opening ceremony, Well said she’s attended every Knox County Relay for Life since she became a cancer survivor in 2000. It’s a way to bond with those who have similar stories, Well said, and to recognize all who fought the disease and won.
“It is a celebration for not just me, but for everybody that I know – I know lots of people that have had cancer,” Well said. “It’s just a way to celebrate, and give us hope that we’re going to be good from here on.”
The night was made more special for Well because her friends and family surprised her during the start of the relay. She’d assumed they wouldn’t be able to make it, and when she saw the contingent clapping for her near the south end of the square after her first lap, she couldn’t help but tear up.
“I thought they had a baseball game. My friends, I didn’t know they were coming,” Well said. “It means a lot because they were there through the whole struggle.”
Given the success of the event over the last two years – hundreds flooded Public Square on Friday to walk – Rutter said the Event Leadership Team plans on keeping Relay for Life downtown for the foreseeable future.
Organizers hoped that by moving the event downtown last year, they could create a festival-like atmosphere, involving local merchants and vendors. On Friday, business owners operated booths around the square and restaurants like Stein Brewing Company and The Joint stayed open late for the occasion. A portion of each vendor’s proceeds went to Relay for Life.
By the time midnight struck, $5,000 had been raised at the event itself. Aside from individual and corporate donations, volunteers raised money through a silent auction and several contests.
Each dollar counts, Rutter said, in the fight against a disease that has seemingly affected everyone in some way.
“We’re not done,” she told those in attendance Friday. “We have a fight on our hands and we are going to win the battle some day, and it’s thanks to all of you.”