This year marks the 25th anniversary of Relay for Life in Park Rapids. Since 1995, it has been a time for families and friends to support cancer survivors and remember those who lost the fight. The relay has raised $1,268,000, so far, to fund cancer research and provide support for residents of Hubbard County dealing with cancer.
"As a community, the fact that we've been able to keep this event going for 25 years is very monumental," event organizer Laurie Conzemius said. "We're really excited to be celebrating that milestone."
The goal is to have 25 teams participate in honor of their 25th year. So far, they have 12.
"It's not too late to sign up a team even up until the day before the relay," Conzemius said.
This year's relay will be Friday, June 7 in the Park Rapids Area High School.
In memory of Scott W. Gartner
Sisters Rose Higgins and Ann Lempola of Park Rapids were on a team in 1995, along with many family members, in memory of their nephew of Scotty W. Gartner of Park Rapids.
Scotty was the son of Leo and Lynn Gartner. "He passed in November, the year prior to the relay, from leukemia when he was 13," Higgins said. "That first relay was a very memorable and healing night. We had a team 'Scott's Shining Stars' with Scotty's uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents. My 13-year-old daughter Amber, Scotty's cousin, was one of the speakers at the program."
That first relay raised $37,700 for the fight against cancer. Higgins and Lempola have been on the Relay for Life committee ever since and are having a team for Scotty again this year to commemorate the 25th anniversary.
Cathy Peterson and Tim Pearson organized the first relay.
"I was Scott's middle school teacher when he died of leukemia in eighth grade," Peterson said. "It was so sad, and I wanted to do something to help others with cancer. Relay for Life raises funds for research and to help people when they travel for chemotherapy. The money is available in this county to help families."
She described the first event as "magical."
"At 1 a.m. they lit all the luminarias around the track, and many were for Scott," she said. "It was a beautiful night."
Pearson said he got involved with Peterson in chairing the first two relays because he had seen firsthand over the years of his funeral business how cancer deaths devastated so many families.
"One of my greatest memories of those two relays was when we honored all of the cancer survivors and celebrated with them their victories in their personal battles with cancer," he said. "Cancer and the Relay for Life have affected so many people in a profound way."
All-night relays were 'emotional'
For 23 years, Relay for Life events were held at the Park Rapids Area High School track. After speakers and a survivor's lap, teams walked around the track all night. There was a carnival atmosphere with games for children, and a variety of food stands.
After 10 years of the all-night tradition, organizers decided to end the event at 1 a.m.
Last year, the event moved indoors at the high school both to make it easier for aging survivors to attend and to eliminate weather issues that had created problems at some past relays.
"For older survivors, walking out to the track was difficult for many," Conzemius said.
Conzermius said while she knows the change was necessary, she has special memories of the all-night relays.
"When it was an all-night event, you faced some of the things that a person dealing with cancer faces," she said. "You have a period in the middle of the night where it's really dark, you're exhausted, feeling hopeless. But you are with people who support and help you. The dawn brought a feeling of hope, of surviving. It was really an emotional night for survivors and families who lost someone to cancer. Walking around the track and reading all of the names on the luminary bags of people you remembered from the past or someone you didn't even realize was a survivor was an incredible experience."
This year's highlights
This year's Relay for Life will again be held indoors at the Park Rapids Area High School from 4:30 to 10 p.m. Lamb Weston RDO will be setting up outside and selling hamburgers and French fries. There will also be food sold indoors in the high school commons area, including pork sandwiches, hot dogs, apple pie, ice cream sandwiches and other treats. Games will be held in the gym. Luminarias will be set up in a path in the gym.
"People will be able to walk the path and read the names, much as they did outside," Conzemius said.
The program will be held in the high school auditorium beginning at 7:30 p.m.
The Hubbard County Relay for Life website includes a link to dedicate a luminaria as well as a fundraising app that can be downloaded by teams participating in the relay.
Luminaries are available at Northview Bank and Citizens National Bank for $5. Hope luminaries are $25.