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Hope burns brightly at Howard Relay for Life

Cheryl Bell represents spirit behind overnight fundraiser for American Cancer Society

By Blair Ames, bames@tribune.com

11:00 AM EDT, June 4, 2014

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Cheryl Bell has been participating in the Howard County Relay for Life in Columbia since 2002. After 11 events over the years, one aspect of the 12-hour effort to support cancer research remains her favorite: the luminaria ceremony, which features hundreds of small white bags illuminated around the track in honor or in memory of someone who has battled cancer.

"Seeing that track light up with the names of those people that have battled cancer, if you've never seen it, it is just absolutely awesome to see," she said

This year's Relay for Life in Columbia, which started in 1996, is expected to draw more than 480 participants, according to Leigh Betancourt, a Relay for Life Specialist with the American Cancer Society who is overseeing the Columbia event for the first time this year.

"It's been a great event, it's one of my favorites," Betancourt said. "It's really community based."

There are two Relay for Life events coming up in Howard County.

The first, scheduled for June 6-7, will be held at Long Reach High School in Columbia. The second, scheduled for June 13-14, will be held in Glenwood.

Previously, there had been one Relay for Life event in Howard until it was split about eight years ago. Before the split, the relay would bring in about $250,000 for cancer research, Bell said.

Last year, the Columbia Relay for Life had 43 teams with 454 participants and raised more than $130,000, according to Betancourt.

The goal for this year's Columbia event is to raise $147,000, she said.

Betancourt said she hopes to have more than 100 cancer survivors participate, and 90 are already signed up.

"They are the reason we relay," she said. "Everyone is coming out for the same cause, which is really special."

Thirty-eight teams and more than 200 participants have signed up, with about $70,0000 already raised, she said.

Bell, a Columbia resident, said the week before the event normally brings a significant fundraising push, which includes on-site fundraisers.

During the event, Relay for Life teams camp out overnight and take turns walking around the track.

New to the Columbia event this year is a children's carnival, including the Howard County School of Rock.

"We just have a lot of things geared toward the kids to keep them entertained," Bell said.

Bell, who is the logistics chair and communications coordinator for the Howard County events, previously served as relay chair.

She became involved in Relay for Life because of a cousin who was a cancer survivor and an aunt who was going through cancer treatment.

But Bell has had multiple family members battle cancer, including her grandmother, who died from breast cancer; and aunts, uncles and cousins who are cancer survivors.

"This event, obviously, means a lot to me," she said. "One of the things I appreciate most about the American Cancer Society is that it's about all cancer. It caters to the fact that my family has had three different kinds of cancer."

Relay for Life events are held in more than 5,200 communities and 20 countries each year and raise more than $400 million annually.

This year, Bell's team, the Superstar Walkers, are walking in honor of her cousin JR, who recently died of lung cancer after being treated for several years.

The team is made up of families and close friends.

Over their 10 years, the Superstar Walkers, named by Bell's aunt, have raised $30,000 for cancer research.

"I love attending the event. You camp out all night, you get to spend time with your family and friends, there's entertainment throughout the night, it's great," Bell said.

But Bell adds that the event is much more than one night.

"It is a celebration of a year's worth of fundraising for the American Cancer Society," she said.

For more information on the Howard County Relay for Life events, go to facebook.com/HoCoRFL.