The event was born out of humble beginnings.
A storm blew across the North Fork overnight during the inaugural Relay For Life, sending participants scrambling for cover. Rain poured. Wind blew. And halfway through, the event was over.
“All of the tents were down in the morning,” recalled Bernadette Taplin of Southold, one of the organizers who has been heavily involved from the beginning. “Dawn [Heard] and I went back and sat on the stage and cried.”
Just over a decade has passed since then and, over that time, Relay For Life of the North Fork has raised more than $1 million for the American Cancer Society while helping to bring hope and lift spirits for hundreds of local cancer survivors. Thousands of people have taken part in the powerful, emotional event designed to celebrate, remember and fight back.
On Friday, June 3, Cochran Park in Peconic will host the 11th annual Relay For Life of the North Fork, previously referred to as the Relay For Life of Southold. Despite the event’s success over the past decade, organizers say the last few years have been an uphill climb. The number of participants has declined and overall interest in the event has dwindled. Two years ago, the Relay switched venues to Mitchell Park in Greenport, an attempt to round up more people and attract some walk-ups. Last year, though, it returned to Cochran Park, where people are less likely to stumble across the event.
Over the past few weeks, volunteers like Ms. Taplin and Ms. Heard, of Peconic, have been doing what they can to rekindle interest, from handing out fliers to stopping in local shops.
“I’m not sure how to spark people’s interest,” Ms. Taplin said. “It’s the 11th year. People might just be burnt out. And there’s a lot of other walks and runs so people get involved in that and something has to give.”
Perhaps after a decade we’ve taken an event like Relay For Life for granted. It’s become easier for people to simply write a check and donate to the cause than take time to attend. Perhaps there are just too many events competing for our attendance.
“It really needs publicity for new people to understand what it is,” Ms. Heard said. “A lot of the survivors come back every year because they feel really special and blessed that it’s really a community outreach to survivors.”
The organizers are hoping to draw in more people from the Riverhead area, which is part of the reason the event is now called Relay For Life of the North Fork. There’s currently no specific Relay For Life event in Riverhead Town, so organizers are looking to spread the word farther west. The closest upcoming events west of Riverhead are in Rocky Point and Middle Island.
“It’s more about the survivors than it is about anything else,” Ms. Taplin said. “The survivors are the ones that we want to get there. We have a mission tent, which basically explains what options are available to people, like where you can go to get help.”
The event begins with a dinner at 6 p.m., which is free for survivors — and anyone is welcome, even without an RSVP. The Soundview is catering the dinner this year, Ms. Heard said. Survivors take the first lap around the track to kick off the relay, and are joined by caregivers for the second lap. The track is then open to all the teams, who have at least one representative on the track at all times throughout the night.
“We are very fortunate to live in an area that has so many activities and events available to us on a Friday night,” said volunteer Cathy Dries of Laurel. “How wonderful would it be if everyone set time aside to cheer on our local cancer survivors as they take that first symbolic lap?”
At dusk comes the luminaria ceremony, during which paper bags with candles are lit all around the track. Participants can personalize bags to remember or honor a loved one. Each candle represents a person.
For the survivors, the event serves as a place to no longer feel alone. Bob Feger of Greenport, a longtime educator who retired as New Suffolk School superintendent in 2012, was the keynote speaker at the Relay For Life about five or six years ago. He was diagnosed with a rare form of stomach cancer in 2002.
“All of a sudden you begin to realize you’re not alone,” Mr. Feger said. “There are all these people who have gone through what you have gone through and everybody’s doing what they have to do to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
When Mr. Feger delivered his remarks, he spoke about the survival rates for leukemia, the most common cancer to hit children and teens. Children diagnosed in the ’70s or ’80s faced grim survival rates, he said, whereas now there’s as high as a 90 percent chance of surviving the most common type of leukemia.
“It’s just a startling, startling difference,” Mr. Feger said.
Still, a long fight remains.
Photo Caption: Relay For Life participants form a ribbon during a previous Relay For Life event. This year’s fundraiser will be held Friday in Peconic. (Credit: Dawn Heard, courtesy)
The author is the managing editor of the The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].