Two decades ago, a small group of people comprising 13 teams raised $27,000 for cancer research by walking around and around the track at Bel High School at the first Relay for Life in Harford County.
Since then, Relay for Life has found great success in the county, growing into as many as three different events in a year and raising more than $1 million for the American Cancer Society. This year, there will be two events in Harford: May 30 at Bel Air High School and June 5 at Havre de Grace High School.
"Relay brings together people who have known people who have had cancer and who have cancer, and they realize they're not alone," Shari Walker, the experience lead for this year's event at Bel Air, said. "It celebrates the survivors and also the caregivers. Without them, the survivors might not have made it."
The first Relay for Life was 30 years ago in Tacoma, Wash., where Dr. Gordy Klatt walked and ran for 24 hours around a track in Tacoma, Wash., raising $27,000 to help fight cancer, according to the American Cancer Association's website, http://relay.acsevents.org.
Relay for Life does three things: celebrate survivors, remember those who have been lost and fight back to keep it from happening again.
Ten years later, the first Harford Relay got off the ground thanks to the efforts of Terry Dezel, Jill Stankis and Betty Wilson, who were among the Harford residents who, in January 1995, attended an American Cancer Society regional meeting in Annapolis, according to a history of Relay provided by Walker. They came back determined to start a Relay in Harford, and in June 1995 the first one – a true, 24-hour event – was held at Bel Air High.
The following year, 27 teams participated and raised $32,000.
In the ensuing years, Relay for Life continued to grow and more money was raised each year for cancer research. It went through various changes, as well, including a move from Bel Air High to Edgewood High School in 2001.
In 2005, Relay expanded from one to three locations – Edgewood, Fallston and Havre de Grace – and more than 1,700 people from across Harford raised more than $275,000.
"It's gone from one person going around a track for 24 hours and people coming to support him to thousands and thousands every day that walk the tracks all over the world," Walker said.
For the Bel Air event this year, 320 participants on 52 teams have already raised more than $46,000.
In Havre de Grace, 38 teams and 424 participants have raised more than $45,000.
Walker has been involved with Relay in Harford County since 1999. Her mother-in-law died of cancer and when Carolyn Smith, whom Walker worked with and was good friends with her mother-in-law, said she was going to do Relay for Life, "it really appealed to me," she said.
She and her husband were the event chairs for the Fallston Relay in 2008 and 2009.
Walker stepped back from Relay for about three years, but got involved again after the death of her best friend, Mary K. Satterthwaite, 18 months ago.
"After she died, I felt I needed to get back into it. So I am," she said.
As the experience lead, Walker is responsible for the logistics of the evening.
"Everything that goes on that night, I'm in charge of," she said.
"Relay is something that once you do it, you love it. It's a lot of work, but it's very rewarding when you see the survivors walk the lap," she said. The survivors lap traditionally starts each Relay.
This year will be even more special for Walker, when her father, Jim Lagan, walks his first survivor lap.
In October, Lagan was diagnosed with non-hodgkins lymphoma. He has undergone chemotherapy and is already in remission, Walker said.
"He is a remarkable person," she said of her dad.
Walker's father is being treated at the Kaufman Cancer Center at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, which she said is an amazing place that Harford County really needs to support.
"It's a world-class hospital. It's just a wonderful thing to have here. Instead of having to run to Baltimore, we've got it right here. We need to support that," she said.
Walker draws from her experiences over the last two decades.
"I always try to think that possibly the money I've worked to raise over the years since my mother-in-law died has helped someone like my dad to get the best care he could get to get over this," Walker said. "What she had years ago maybe is curable now. Back then they didn't have the info they do now. I hope it gets better and better and one day we may not have it anymore."
Relay for Life is a rallying point, Walker said. Organizers try to have a survivor on each team, for members to work around and say "this is why we relay. Especially to young people, to say 'Yeah, we can really make a difference,'" she said.
"It's a way to get together and have a good time but it's for a serious thing, putting an end to cancer," she said.