HELPING HANDS — Summer 2006


Students Set Pace in Honoring Those Touched by Cancer

by Paromita De

At 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, March 5, 2006, rain was pouring down onto Francis Field. At that hour, in that weather, nearly 2,000 people could be found on the track. Those members of the Washington University community were close to completing 12 hours of walking as part of one of the University's biggest student-run events, Relay For Life®—a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society.

"The chance to help people with cancer—a disease that can be so crippling—is so powerful," says Frank Bergh, Engineering Class of '08. "Relay For Life is something that not only raises money, it raises awareness of the causes and effects of cancer on people's lives."

Over the last 20 years, Relay has grown into a major worldwide event with participation by businesses, churches, colleges and universities, and other schools and groups. At every event, there are teams, and each team member must raise a minimum of $100 to participate. During the event, at least one member of each team has to be walking at all times.

At Washington University, Relay For Life was held March 4-5 from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. In its fourth-consecutive year, the University had more than 160 teams, with 1,700 participants, who—along with visitors—raised more than $262,000. This year's effort surpassed last year's, both in number of participants and money raised. This was no small feat, since last year's Relay was the No. 1 Collegiate Relay in the nation. All money raised goes to the American Cancer Society to fund research—leading to better ways to prevent, detect, and treat cancer—and the society's educational/awareness programs.

"I hadn't heard of Relay For Life before Stephanie Kash of the American Cancer Society contacted me," says Stephanie Kurtzman, director of community service at the University. "However, after watching a single video about Relay, I was moved and couldn't help but see the possibility of what it could be on our campus.

Mike Doris, Business Class of '06, helps prepare for the Luminaria Ceremony, the highlight of Relay For Life. During the ceremony, the track is lined with candles in white bags, honoring loved ones; then the field lights are turned off.

"The American Cancer Society was specifically interested in Washington University because of its strong ties to researchers at our medical school," continues Kurtzman. "However, as with all community service programs, interest must be driven by the students. We held an information session in spring 2002, and about 20 people attended. That was the start of Relay For Life at Washington University—a few students got engaged, and it has grown from there."

Each year, the Relay For Life Steering Committee leads the effort. This year's Steering Committee co-chairs, Diana Black, Arts & Sciences Class of '06, and Matt Zinter, Arts & Sciences Class of '07, worked with a group of 45 students on 11 subcommittees to put on Relay.

"Everybody on the Steering Committee is in charge of a specific aspect of the event," says Dan Lauf, Arts & Sciences Class of '06. "For example, the subcommittee I'm on, Logistics, is in charge of making sure everything at the event follows code, and we are in charge of behind-the-scenes work, such as getting tents for resting participants and setting up the stage for the ongoing entertainment. It's such a dedicated committee, and we all want to see this event be the best it can be."

What's more, Lauf continues: "We all get along so well, and we have a great time together. I've met people through Relay I otherwise would never have known."

Members of the different subcommittees may spend five to six hours a week on event planning. At the beginning of the year, they work tirelessly to recruit volunteers. By staffing tables in Mallinckrodt and posting fliers over both the Hilltop and Medical campuses, the members work to spread their enthusiasm for the event, and to promote consciousness of issues surrounding cancer throughout the entire University community.

"During my freshman year, I was very eager to reach out, and I joined the Recruitment subcommittee," says Bergh. "I think raising awareness has been a tremendous part of why Relay is so important to me—helping keep others mindful that there are people for whom every day is a struggle."

Relay For Life's Opening Ceremonies conclude with the Survivor's Lap, where cancer survivors are invited to walk the first lap around the track. Immediately following the Survivors' Lap, other Relay participants walk.

On the night of the event during Opening Ceremonies, participants listen to speeches by members of the University community who have volunteered to share their stories of how cancer has affected their lives—whether they have lost a family member or friend to cancer, or whether they are a survivor. The Opening Ceremonies conclude with a Survivors' Lap, in which cancer survivors walk the initial lap around the track.

After the Survivors' Lap, all participants are invited to walk. As hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff, and even St. Louis families fill the track, some team members sell baked goods, scarves, and massages to participants. Entertainment is offered continuously on a corner stage, featuring musical groups and dance ensembles. Recognizing community support, the Color Guard from a local urban middle school for at-risk youth, Lift for Life Academy, was among the groups.

The highlight of the evening, however, is the Luminaria Ceremony.

"The Luminaria Ceremony takes place at 10 p.m.," says Lauf. "We turn off all the lights around the track and line the entire track with bags—white bags with a candle inside—that participants have purchased in memory or in honor of a loved one. Seeing the entire track rimmed with candles, seeing how many people have been affected by this disease, is very emotional."

The American Cancer Society has recognized the achievements of the Washington University's Relay For Life Steering Committee on both a regional and national level. While the Steering Committee propels the campus event, members acknowledge that it is the participation and collaborative efforts of hundreds at the University that make it so successful.

"The American Cancer Society has acknowledged that Washington University is really a leader in running a great Relay," says Kurtzman. "This event shows the positive impact college students can have. The event is not just about the money; it's about a group of people united toward a common cause, doing something about it, celebrating each other, honoring each other."  

Paromita De, Arts & Sciences Class of '08, is a writing intern in the University's Publications Office. She participated in this year's Relay For Life as a member of the APO team.