Warren Relay For Life celebrates silver anniversary

WARREN — In its first 24 years, the Warren edition of the American Cancer Society Relay For Life has raised $8.3 million for research, treatment and other aids in the fight to end cancer.

This year, the 25th anniversary year, the Warren Relay is projected to add another $250,000 to that total, said Philip M. O’Hara, who has been the lead chair of the event for eight years.

O’Hara, a cancer survivor himself, says perhaps the best way to tell that the Relay For Life is doing good is to witness the Survivor Lap, when more than a thousand survivors clad in purple T-shirts take the first lap around Courthouse Square in downtown Warren.

“The best stories are about the survivors. Watching the sea of purple taking that first lap around the track still gives me chills,” he said.

“Every year the Warren Relay tries to do something a little different, but the main focus is celebrating those who have survived cancer and honoring those who have lost their lives to it,” he said.

While the cause is serious, Relay For Life has always taken on the air of a party that lasts all night and a good chunk of the next day. This year, to mark the silver anniversary, the festivity plans are grander.

“We are bringing back as many of the original teams / team members as possible to honor and celebrate with them,” O’Hara said. “We are also having a birthday celebration on Saturday to celebrate the first 25 years.

“Weather is always a topic at Relay,” O’Hara said. “I have been there through snow, several thunderstorms severe enough where we had to evacuate the site and wind so strong that we had to tie the tents to a truck to keep them from blowing away.

“One thing that has stayed the same is that the Warren Relay For Life has been the largest Relay in Ohio for most of the years it has been in existence.”

The Relay For Life kicked off in Warren because a local dermatologist was searching for an event that would both capture the imagination of a community and raise money for cancer research and awareness.

At a conference in Florida, Dr. Robert Brodell heard about the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life, a 24-hour party on a walking track that started in 1985 in Tacoma, Wash., and was spreading across the United States.

Brodell brought the idea home to Warren. In 1994, a dozen teams stepped off for Warren’s first, hastily organized Relay. They raised $28,000.

The idea caught fire in the Mahoning Valley. Other Relays sprang up in Niles, Lordstown, Newton Falls, Liberty, Champion, Cortland and Youngstown. Meanwhile, Warren’s Relay For Life grew to become the largest in the state of Ohio and one of the biggest Relays in the nation.

Nationally, Relay For Life, an all volunteer-administered event, has become the American Cancer Society’s signature fundraiser. Estimates are that nearly 4 million people take part in Relays in more than 5,000 communities and have raised nearly $5 billion and counting.

Kaitlin Irgang, community development manager for the North Central Region of the American Cancer Society, said, “The fact that the city of Warren has raised $8 million in the last 24 years is astounding to me.

“I think the thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that most of this money isn’t coming from large donors or a wealthy population. It comes from everyday middle-class people in this community that want to see a cure for cancer. The average donation size is $50 or less.

“When you think about how hard our teams and participants have to work to raise over $200,000 a year it’s so clear that fighting this disease has been and will continue to be relevant for the city of Warren because the people refuse to quit until a cure is found,” Irgang said.

A big portion of the money raised goes toward medical research for cancer treatments and a cure. The Relay also helps fund the Hope Lodge in Cleveland, near both the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals.

“It houses cancer patients and a caregiver while they are undergoing treatment that they needed to travel to Cleveland for, completely free of charge,” Irgang said. “It saves patients millions of dollars and hours of travel every year.

“The highest percent of patients that stay in the Cleveland Hope Lodge are from Trumbull and Mahoning counties. Some of these people are facing a life-and-death situation and have no choice but to get the treatment in Cleveland,” she said.

“I could go on about the programs and services we have, but you can find a full list at cancer.org,” she said. “What you can’t find on the website or fully understand until you experience it for yourself is the wave of emotion that the Relay For Life brings. When the survivors start taking their lap and all you can see is a sea of purple T-shirts and the faces of so many people who have heard the words, ‘You have cancer,’ there is no other feeling in the world like it.

“The Survivor Lap is a celebration of life, and for newly diagnosed patients, it’s a sign of hope,” she said.

Pam Marshall, who managed the Warren Relay for 16 years, says she plans to be back this year as a member of the team at Trumbull Regional Medical Center, where she is a physician’s liaison. She said the reason for the success of the Relay is because cancer has affected pretty much everyone, either personally or a family member or a friend.

“In a nutshell, everybody always had a reason to relay. I think that’s what kept the event going,” Marshall said.

“It was always well-accepted in the community. There was always an abundance of help, very enthusiastic volunteers. They each had their own reasons, their own story. That’s what got them engaged,” she said.

“When it started, you said the word ‘cancer’ and people assumed time was not on their side,” Marshall said.

Now after a quarter century of discovery of new treatments, death rates are down and more and more forms of cancer are beatable, she said.

“After all the years and all the ceremonies I was lucky enough to be a part of, I always embraced the Survivor Lap as being the most important,” she said.

Tammi Penman of Warren said that, as usual, she will be walking with the Howland United Methodist Church team.

“We’ve been doing it at least 16 years from our church, and my husband and I were involved as participants years before that,” Penman said. “It’s just such a great experience.

“So many people from our church congregation were affected,” Penman said. “As a church, we need to do all we can to help people, so this is one way we can help them to raise money for research and support them.

“My dad had bladder cancer. My mom died from brain cancer three years ago,” she said. “I do it for them.”

And while she looks back and laughs at so many crazy things that have happened at Relays — such as the time it rained so hard, walkers joked about paddling canoes around the track — the Survivor Lap shows what it’s all about, she said.

“Just honoring the people who have fought so hard and at that time are winning the battle — they’re very deserving of the clapping given to them,” Penman said.

“When it rains, those are tears coming down from heaven for them … tears of joy,” she said. “Rain doesn’t deter us.”

bcole@tribtoday.com

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