2019-06-17-News-Foxboro-Relay for Life- 08 (copy)

Walkers doing laps pass luminaria at the Relay for Life at Ahern Middle School in June 2019.

The ongoing pandemic forced two major area fundraisers for the American Cancer Society to go virtual to continue their mission of raising money to fight cancer and to raise awareness about the disease rather than canceling or postponing the events.

Organizers of the Greater Attleboro Relay For Life and the Relay For Life of Mansfield-Foxboro-Sharon, which had been scheduled June 12-13 and June 20-21 respectively, joined Hope From Home on June 7. A partnership of the cancer societies in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire, the event featured videos on a number of topics shared on both the Massachusetts and local relays’ Facebook pages.

The event began by addressing why the need for funds to help patients and continue research into new treatments and cures remains acute, especially in the midst of the pandemic. Making impassioned pleas to support the cancer society were Massachusetts American Cancer Society Executive Director Louise Santosuosso and New England Board Chairwoman Alice Pomponio. That was followed by a video featuring heartfelt remarks from many longtime relay volunteers, including four from the two area relays.

Speaking on behalf of the Greater Attleboro Relay Committee was Chairwoman Barbara Benoit, who personifies the grit and determination of relayers to do their part to eradicate cancer. This is her 21st year of participation as the captain for her longtime team, which she began to honor her mother, Margaret “Margie” Gill, who died from cancer.

“In 2000, I saw an article in The Sun Chronicle about the Greater Attleboro Relay and decided to start a team in memory of my mother,” Benoit told me for a column in 2018. “Our team was Margie’s Marchers until 2016, when my mother’s best friend, Carol Amirault, passed away, and we changed the name to Carol and Margie’s Marchers.”

Three members of the Mansfield-Foxboro-Sharon relay’s organizing committee, Erin McCarthy and her two daughters, Grace and Michaela, were featured on the same video as they walked on the Ahern Middle School track in Foxboro, where the event would have been held. Michaela, later in the video, shared her reason to relay: to honor the memory of her grandfather.

Later that day, a Survivors Ceremony put the spotlight on those courageous souls who either have beaten cancer or who are battling it. They’ve always shared a place of honor at relays; watching them circle the track to start the event is living proof that cancer indiscriminately affects the young and old, and men and women of all races, creeds and religion.

Another Hope From Home highlight was a video display of luminaira — candles lit in honor of cancer survivors and in memory of cancer victims. The video, which can still be watched on the local relays’ Facebook pages, is inspirational, but it also brought home the void left by the absence of the in-person relays. That’s because the relays would always feature dozens of cancer survivors circling the track, lit up at night by the luminaira and led by a bagpiper, a sight that would inevitably give me goosebumps.

That’s only one relay moment that I’m missing. As commonplace as virtual races and fundraisers have become since the pandemic began, the truth is that online events will never be as spiritually fulfilling as in-person ones, which contain one vital component that can’t be duplicated online: human interaction.

Sorry, but in this era where we’ve been practically brainwashed by government and health officials into accepting “social distancing” as the “new normal” for the foreseeable future — and where some heartless “experts” speculate that handshakes and hugs will soon be ancient history — our very humanity is in serious jeopardy of being taken from us.

Those expressions of our humanity are why being a part of a relay for life in June has become second nature to so many of us, and why this year we’re missing the camaraderie that prevails at relays. We’re also missing:

  • Hanging out on the opening night, reconnecting with friends and celebrating another year of relaying.
  • Walking around the track trying to spot the luminaira that you’ve dedicated to friends and relatives.
  • Checking out the campsites for their decorations, raffles, crafts and other fundraisers.
  • Sampling the food being cooked and sold at campsites.
  • Being inspired by speeches from cancer survivors.
  • Greeting the survivors during the annual dinner the relay provides for them.
  • Taking a final lap around the track to end the relay while carrying a papier-mache chain link symbolizing the number of birthdays that have been celebrated over the years because there are more survivors.

It was tough holding a relay absent those traditional relay moments, but given the fundraising challenges created by the COVID-19-imposed economic hardships, the relay had to continue, even virtually.

The good news is that the public has responded positively, something for which organizers are extremely grateful. As of this writing, the Greater Attleboro event has raised more than $57,000, while the Mansfield-Foxboro-Sharon event has raised close to $15,000. You can still add to those totals by going to the relays’ respective websites: www.relayforlife.org/greaterattleboroma; secure.acsevents.org/site/STR?pg=entry&fr_id=95390)

Larry Kessler is a retired local news editor and a member of the Greater Attleboro Relay For Life volunteer organizing committee. He can be reached at larrythek65@gmail.com.

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