Since it started 14 years ago, the Laurel Relay for Life has grown in size and scope. Each year sees new traditions and new participants discovering the event — which, veterans say, is at once powerful, emotional and a lot of fun.
This year, a record number of people are already signed up to take part in the Laurel relay, which is scheduled for Saturday, June 9, at McCullough Field on Montgomery Street.
"We've just had a phenomenal response," logistics chairwoman Nancy Becraft said. She's been involved with the relay since its inception in Laurel and served as chair of the event for four years.
As of May 30, there were 310 participants and 38 teams, who have together raised $37,333. Organizers expect that number to grow even more.
Relay For Life is the American Cancer Society's signature fundraising and awareness event, held in communities across the nation every summer. To cancer survivors, and their friends and family and the communities that support them, it's a night for reflection and camaraderie.
Relays typically start in the evening and last until the next morning. Participants set up tents and take turns walking around a track throughout the night. The idea is to keep a constant, symbolic vigil for survivors of a disease that doesn't cut its victims any breaks.
"Cancer never sleeps and neither do we," said Kristy Murray, one of this year's co-chairs.
Laurel's relay starts at 5 p.m. with an opening ceremony that typically includes a speech by the mayor and an American Cancer Society representative. The survivors are then honored: After their names are read, they take to the track for the opening lap.
Organizers have events planned for the whole evening.
Interspersed with the regular laps are themed laps — like a crazy hat lap, a sports lap, a patriotic lap and a lap for participants dressed in togas.
Activities off the track include a cornhole tournament, digital scavenger hunt, Relay For Life bingo and several "minute to win it" games. Teams also typically have their own activities and fundraisers, such as bake sales and handmade jewelry for sale.
Setting the atmosphere will be local disc jockey DJ Rob, who's volunteering his time to spin music all night.
A highlight of the event is the lighting of the luminaria, which takes place after nightfall, around 9 p.m. Participants surround the track with candles and place bags over them — purple for survivors and white for those who have died from cancer. A moment of silence as the candles flicker is a particularly emotional moment in the overwhelmingly upbeat evening.
"It really gets to you," said Robin Brecht, another former Relay chair who is now in charge of the luminaria. He predicted the track this year would be covered with 600 to 800 candles.
At midnight, the mood gets a little sillier. In a tradition that one of the teams started last year, participants will form a soul train and dance around the track.
Frequent participants say this mix of seriousness and fun is what makes the event so special.
"I always say that you'll experience every emotion imaginable if you're there all day long. You'll laugh; you'll cry," said Brecht.
Murray and her co-chair, Mandi Phillips, got involved in Relay For Life for the same reason. In addition to organizing the event together, the two are best friends, and when Murray's grandmother and Phillips' mother were both diagnosed with cancer in the same year, they decided to do something together that could help fight the disease.
After several years of participating in Relay For Life, they decided to take on the role of co-chairs last year. Murray will be walking to honor her grandmother, who died in 2009, and Phillips will be joined by her mother, who is a three-year cancer survivor.
This year, the theme of the event is "Colors of Hope," an effort to raise awareness about the many types of cancer. Participants have been asked to decorate their tents in the colors of the cancer that has affected them.
Most of the teams get creative with this challenge; Murray said one team is planning a Garden of Hope and decorating their tent in a floral pattern. Phillips said her team is trying to decide between a tie-dye theme or a Hawaiian theme, because there are multiple kinds of cancer that have touched her friends and family.
Phillips and Murray said they hope to see members of the Laurel community at Relay For Life — even if it's just for an hour or two.
"The community can just come out and support by visiting the campsites and walking for a little bit," Phillips said.
"We would really like the public to come and experience the event," Brecht added.
Laurel Relay for Life is Saturday, June 9, to Sunday, June 10. It begins with an opening ceremony Saturday, at 5 p.m.; survivor lap at 6 p.m.; luminaria lighting at 8:40 p.m.; and closing ceremony Sunday at 5:30 a.m. For more information, go to relay.acsevents.org.