Relay for Life

Overnight fundraiser offers great fun for a great cause.

Relay for Life

Photo: Wendy Mather


It’s a wonderfully warm and sunny afternoon and I, along with dozens of men, women and children, am helping to build a village in the middle of a high school track and field course. Laughter and chatter compete with the sounds of hammers and drills and the atmosphere is rich with friendship and a shared purpose.

We are volunteers taking part in the Canadian Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, an overnight non-competitive relay to raise funds for cancer research and services. And our job is to build a village for members of the relay teams, their family and friends. The village consists of food, entertainment, hospitality and wellness tents, a special children’s area, as well as designated areas for the relay teams to pitch their tents.

Right now, volunteers in daffodil yellow shirts are buzzing around like busy bees helping each other with the finishing touches. We’re all working towards the same goal: a cancer-free society!

Held in June every year in towns and cities like ours across Canada, Relay for Life brings together people from all walks of life to celebrate cancer survivors, to remember those we have lost to cancer, and to raise money for the fight against cancer. During the 12-hour event, team members who have fundraised or raised pledges of $1,000 per team take turns walking or running the relay course continuously. One team member must be on the track at all times. Last year, Relay for Life events in Canada raised over $43 million!

When the teams and supporters start to arrive, the event takes on the air of a carnival. There are balloons strung over the track, bands playing, kids 

running from tent to tent looking for friends, teen volunteers filling popcorn bags, old friends catching up, lineups for food, free massages and foot treatments. Dads walk by with kids hiked on shoulders and a group of teenage girls in matching colours walk along the track arm in arm, chatting and laughing.

At the kids’ tent, youngsters are having their faces painted, doing crafts and watching in awe as Jimbo the clown makes crazy balloon animals, hats and swords.

The teams add to the festivity with colourfully decorated tents, some worthy of the Quidditch world cup campsite (without the magic), and creative names, like Safari Hunters for a Cure, Daffogals, and Ribbons of Hope.

When the ceremonies begin, the mood changes. A reverent silence falls over the watching crowd as cancer survivors from the community walk the first lap of the relay. The whole field celebrates them with tears of sadness and joy, and encouraging applause. It is a profound moment of unity, and a cathartic beginning, to a magical event.

At dusk, the Luminary Ceremony takes place. Candles lining the track are lit in memory of a loved one, or in honour of a survivor while a lone bagpipe plays. The luminaries remain lit throughout the night as a sign of hope and inspiration to the relay participants. After the ceremony, most of the kids head home to their beds.

Throughout the night, as relay team members do their loops, the other team members visit neighbours, camp out in their tents, and enjoy the hum of the village. There’s all-night music, bridge games, euchre, and more to keep everyone “up” for the night.

The relay concludes at 7 am. Participants rub sore and tired muscles, while volunteers pull down the tents and pack up for another year. We all share a feeling of camaraderie and satisfaction that comes from pushing yourself to the limit for a great cause.

Author: Wendy Mather

Wendy Mather enjoys living in Cobourg with her husband and three daughters.

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