Has Relay For Life run its course?

Fewer events and smaller crowds could lead to changes

Tribune Chronicle / Allie Vugrincic Junior Cerina Gilbert, left, with Great Dane Luna, and junior Sierra Normal lead the River Gate High School Relay For Life team during the opening lap of the Warren Relay held May 10.

Warren resident Phil O’Hara said he can see an American Cancer Society Relay For Life always being held in Trumbull County, but as times change, so will the fundraiser — including, possibly, merging multiple Relays into one large event for the entire county.

The Warren Relay For Life, which marked its 26th anniversary May 10 and 11, is still the biggest in the state, drawing many teams and participants.

O’Hara, who was co-chair of the Warren Relay for many years, said he believes the Warren Relay eventually will become a Trumbull County Relay, with participants from across the county coming together.

“We have volunteers and teams who are very dedicated to the cause and putting in the time to make Relay a success. We will always have a Relay in some form or another here. It makes more sense to have a Trumbull County Relay,” he said.

Kaitlin Irgang, American Cancer Society Relay For Life coordinator for Niles, Warren and Liberty-McDonald, said that has already happened in Mahoning County. This year, there will be one large Mahoning County Relay For Life, with participants from Boardman, Poland, Canfield and Austintown planning a 12-hour event at Boardman Park from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. June 15.

She said Youngstown State University has a Relay that has been cut back to a six-hour event. YSU’s Relay generally is the first one of the season and was held April 6.

“In Mahoning County, they have all decided to combine into one large Relay. The Relays are becoming more streamlined and there is less participation than years ago. It makes more sense to have one large Relay. There is huge commitment from the participants, which is appreciated,” Irgang said.

Trumbull County has had Relays in past years in Warren, Niles, Liberty-McDonald, Cortland-Champion and Newton Falls. The Cortland-Champion and Newton Falls Relays have ended, with many teams joining Warren. The Niles and Liberty-McDonald Relays have gotten smaller, with fewer teams and shorter hours.

The Relays used to be 24-hour events but have been scaled back. Niles now lasts 17 hours and Liberty-McDonald goes 12 hours. Even Warren cut back to 22 hours this year.

Irgang said the Warren Relay still gets more than 30 teams, but that is down from as many as 50 or 60 in years past.

Ken Kramp, who has helped co-chair the Warren Relay and is a cancer survivor, said a lot of time and preparation are put into Relay, with the Warren Relay being a major leader.

“We are looking at different avenues for Relay and what the teams want to do. Over the years, other Relays have spun off Warren’s Relay,” he said.

“The need for Relay is there, it is just that they may have to evolve and change. They can’t be the same as what they were,” Kramp said.

Irgang said she thinks the future of Relay For Life depends on each individual community and what they want to do.

“Relay For Life can change from being a walk to look more like a concert, a ladies night out or a carnival. It can be whatever the community wants it to be. I can’t predict the future for every Relay. It depends what the community wants,” Irgang said.

Pam Streb, who is on a Relay team for McDonald schools, said this will be the third year McDonald will be hosting the Liberty-McDonald Relay, which will be 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. June 8 at Woodland Park. The Relay had been at Churchill Park in Liberty and then at the Liberty High School stadium before moving to McDonald.

She said the local teams do not want to join or merge with another Relay, but in the future changes may happen because of less teams.

This was the 18th year Niles hosted a Relay For Life, which was 6 p.m. May 3 to 11 a.m. May 4 at the Niles Wellness Center. Patrice Butler-Kish, Niles event chair the past six years, said that Relay peaked in 2009 with 25 teams and funds raised of $94,000.

This year, nine teams participated — ranging from a large Niles City Schools contingent down to a one-person team — involved with the fundraising goal of $30,000. As of Friday, the goal was not met, with a total of $11,432.72 raised.

Butler-Kish said the Relay has been shrinking over the last five years. She said she suspects finances and people’s busy schedules are playing a role. But she also does not think Niles will be rejoining the Warren Relay anytime soon.

“I have teams and I have strong-willed people who want to keep the city of Niles Relay because we want to represent our city. And we have the backing of the city,” said Butler-Kish.

“We just want to keep the American Cancer Society Relay For Life going for us, because it’s so near and dear to our heart and we always say to ourselves and everyone else, ‘We are small but we are mighty.’

“With four teams, we raised over $45,000 last year. I think that’s a great accomplishment for us.”

Kathy Smith, 70, of Niles, was at the Niles Relay For Life for her daughter, who died from cancer in October. Smith has been participating in Relay For Life for about three years, and has noticed every year there seems to be fewer vendors and teams.

Peg McGinnis, 79, of Niles, has been participating in Relay For Life for 23 years, and has been cancer-free for 24. She started with the Warren Relay For Life and switched to Niles once Niles started to host its own.

“There seems to be more participation than when I first started from survivors, but there seems to be less visitors. It gets smaller every year,” McGinnis said.