Relay for Life reaches milestone, continues to grow

Vancouver event marks 25 years of raising money in fight against cancer

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter


photoRelay for Life of Vancouver Relay for Life of Vancouver participants walk around the track at Columbia River High School in this previous event. This year, the event celebrates its 25th anniversary.


If you go

■ What: Relay for Life of Vancouver.

■ When: 10 a.m. Saturday through

10 a.m. Sunday.

■ Where: Columbia River High School, 800 N.W. 99th St.

■ Events: 10 a.m. Saturday opening ceremony and survivor lap;

3 to 7 p.m. silent auction; 8 p.m. live auction; 10 p.m. luminaria ceremony; 9 a.m. Sunday closing ceremony.

■ On the Web:

Twenty-five years ago, a group of about 100 Clark County residents formed teams and got together to walk for 24 hours around the track at Columbia River High School.

They asked friends and family members to pledge money for the feat, a donation for every lap walked. The goal was to raise $150 per person. The money was to benefit the American Cancer Society.

While on the track, a member from each team carried a baton. When their turn was over, they passed the baton to the next team member to take the track. Many people didn't walk, they ran.

Organizers named the event the Clark County 24-Hour Run Against Cancer. That first year, in 1989, those 10 teams raised about $15,000.

"It was a great event," said Jon Creedon, owner of Vancouver Auto Group, which had a team in the inaugural event. "We had a lot of fun."

Today, that event is known as the Relay for Life of Vancouver and it draws hundreds of teams and thousands of participants. The 24-hour walk still takes place at Columbia River High School, and the walkers — or, relayers, as they're called — still raise money for the American Cancer Society. They just raise a lot more of it.

In 2012, the event raised $287,000. Since its inception, the Vancouver event has collected more than $5 million.

The event has withstood the recession and continued to grow despite additional Relay events springing up in Battle Ground and Washougal, said Marilyn Dryke, who has participated and served in various board positions since 1992.

And this weekend, when the event celebrates its 25th anniversary, organizers hope to add another $325,000 to the total.

"I think it's a tribute to Vancouver," Dryke said. "It makes me feel very, very proud of the Vancouver community."

Like the event, the way teams raise money has evolved over the years.

"(In 1989) it was all about the laps," said Greg Call, who was a participant that year. "Now, laps are more symbolic. People aren't getting paid to do laps anymore."

Instead, the teams hold garage sales, car washes, cupcake wars, golf tournaments and anything else they can think of. This year, one relayer charged a $10 admission to her wedding reception. The money went to her Relay team, Dryke said.

That passion for Relay for Life is widespread, said Call, who has been the event announcer for more than 20 years.

"It absolutely is the spirit of the people here," he said. "To not sit back and feel bad about cancer. To do something about it and do it with vigor. It's a tremendous community."

This year's event will be no exception.

This weekend, the event will feature 116 teams made of up more than 1,000 people.

The event will kickoff with an opening ceremony Saturday morning -- this year, featuring the "father" of Relay for Life, founder Gordy Klatt -- and a survivor lap, where cancer survivors don purple shirts and walk a lap together on the track. At 4 p.m., relayers will make as much noise as possible -- using noisemakers and blow horns -- for the first-ever "Silence Won't Finish the Fight" lap.

Then, at 10 p.m., the lights will go off and relayers will silently walk the track lined with candles in white bags. The luminaria ceremony recognizes those who have lost their fight with cancer. Each bag is decorated by a family member or friend in memory of a person who died.

The public is invited to attend the events and is encouraged to walk laps with participants. Anybody who has ever given money but never experienced Relay for Life should stop by, Dryke said.

"There's something there that touches the heart," she said.

For Creedon, whose company has been a corporate sponsor of the event since its inception, the evolution and growth of the event has been rewarding.

"Sometimes you have to wait in line for the foot massages or chair massages, so there are drawbacks," he said with a smile.

Looking forward, Creedon hopes the event continues to grow and raise even more money.

He wants to see 200 teams at the Vancouver event. That, however, will take recruiting people to start new teams and extra space on the event grounds. Currently, the team sites are limited to the outer perimeter of the school's track. Having access to the space on the track infield would allow for more team sites, he said.

Jule Webster, this year's event chair, has a bigger goal for the future of Relay for Life.

"We hope we can finish the fight and there will be no more relays," she said.

"We don't want our kids, our grandkids and our great-grandkids to hear those words, 'You have cancer,'" Dryke added.

Until then, they'll continue the fight, one lap at a time.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546;;;