More than 1,000 people gathered at the Washington Fairgrounds Friday night to help celebrate, remember and fight back against cancer at the 16th annual Franklin County Relay for Life.
Wendy Wildberger, event cochair, announced that the overnight Relay had raised $125,573 to date.
“We’re very pleased with the turnout,” she said, “especially after the rain last year.”
Donations are still coming in and fundraising for this year’s Relay will continue through Aug. 31, Wildberger noted. The goal set by the American Cancer Society is $160,000.
With “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” playing in the background, 160 survivors, along with committee members, teams and families rallied at the fairgrounds during the opening ceremony.
The 2012 theme, which tied in with “The Wizard of Oz,” was “There’s No Place Like HOPE.”
Following the welcome speech was the presentation of colors, national anthem and presentation of the committee.
During the opening ceremony, Karla Frank, Relay chair, announced that in 2012, the number of Relays nationwide officially surpassed the number of Wal-Mart stores. Wildberger said the American Cancer Society is the leading funder of cancer research, followed by the government.
Washington Mayor Sandy Lucy also addressed the crowd.
“To many, cancer is a death sentence, but because of the generosity of the citizens of Franklin County, your efforts have raised over $2 million dollars to fight the battle against cancer,” she said. “We’re here today because there is hope, and no one is alone in this struggle.
“There are no easy answers, but your part shows that you have not given up. We may not have the answers today or tomorrow, but a race is made of many steps, and each step taken today brings us one step closer to the finish line.”
Hero of Hope
This year’s Hero of Hope award was presented to caregivers Lynnette and Glen Roehrig of Washington.
During the ceremony, the couple shared an emotional story of their family’s battle with cancer.
In April 1995, the couple’s 17-month old son, Nathan, was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor.
“Within a 24-hour period, we had seen our family pediatrician, we had CT scans, we received the diagnoses of malignant ependymoma, we saw a pediatric oncologist, we were admitted into Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, we met with a team of neurosurgeons and medical staff, and found ourselves handing our 17-month-old over to people we had just met to save his life,” Lynnette Roehrig said.
She described her feelings of being overwhelmed, numb and scared.
The tumor was removed through surgery and the Roehrigs had to consider options for their future.
“It’s hard to hear that your options are few and harder to hear that those options are not known to be successful,” she said. “We learned that people are good and have generous hearts. We learned that family members can love you through the toughest times to a time when you can once again see the sun begin to shine. We learned that while tragic, this journey was allowing us to see the blessings in our lives that may have gone unnoticed before.”
The couple celebrated their son’s second birthday. On Jan. 12, 1996, they received news that the tumor was back and that this time, it was terminal. They were told they may have 10 days and were sent home for the weekend.
The next morning, Saturday, Jan. 13, 1996, Nathan Roehrig passed away.
“Our intent for sharing our journey with you is not to sadden, but rather to further justify why efforts such as this relay are so important. To emphasize that while we’ve made a tremendous difference, there is still so much work to do,” Lynnette Roehrig said.
She said that upon reflection, she and her husband gained an understanding that the message they were meant to give is twofold.
“There are people who love you and are there for you always. Some you know and others who know only your battle, embrace them,” she said. “And secondly, to emphasize that hope exists where it once did not; you’ve made a difference and your efforts have purpose.
“Because of your efforts and the efforts of people like you, we were afforded the luxury of time with our son, a luxury that those diagnosed before us likely did not have . . . We have to pave a better path for those who follow. This relay does just that.
“Each survivor here tonight represents your successes. But it’s not enough. We can’t be satisfied until each individual inflicted with this disease can take refuge in knowing that at the end of their struggle lies remission.”
The Roehrigs have two other children, Benjamin and Kara.
They ended their speech by playing a song written for a breast cancer survivor.
This year, a record 720 of luminaria bags were lit around the fairgrounds during the luminaria ceremony. Guests were invited to reflect and honor loved ones.
The 2011 Eastern Missouri Hero of Hope, Lucia Patterson, spoke during the Fight Back ceremony.
Participants also could pledge to fight back against cancer by promising to eat healthier, exercise more, not smoke, use alcohol in moderation and get annual checkups and mammograms.
This year’s Relay included many themed laps, a munchkin parade, relay-oke and a rooster calling contest.
Wildberger said her favorite part of the evening was the survivors lap.
“It’s always inspiring to see that we’ve got so many survivors in Franklin County who are beating this illness,” she said. “The luminaria ceremony was moving also. The Fight Back ceremony was energizing and uplifting.”
Wildberger thanked the community for its generosity and for coming out to support survivors and caregivers.
The team captain wrap-up meeting is scheduled for Monday, June 18, at 6 p.m. at the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish Center.