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Rallying for the Relay: Organizers of annual cancer fundraiser energize support

Perhaps it’s the economy or the timing, but the American Cancer Society’s annual Relay For Life fundraiser in Los Altos has experienced a decline in participation and revenue in recent years.

Contributions in cash, kind and effort to fight the often-deadly disease have steadily dwindled over the past few years, according to Ray Skitt, chairman of the eighth annual Los Altos-Los Altos Hills Relay For Life, scheduled 10 a.m. Saturday to 10 a.m. Sunday at Egan Junior High School, 100 W. Portola Ave.

The sluggish economy has played a part in the event’s decline in popularity, according to Skitt, as has the date – Father’s Day weekend – and Mountain View residents starting their own Relay a few years ago.

But Los Altos Relay organizers and volunteers aren’t giving up, logging long hours to rally support for an event they see as critical in raising awareness and funds to fight the disease.

“We’ve done fine, but (Relay participation) has certainly dropped,” Skitt said. “It showed signs of rebirth last year, and we expect better participation this year.”

The Los Altos Relay has generated $2.3 million for the American Cancer Society since its 2004 inception, including last year’s contribution of approximately $200,000, Skitt said. Administrative costs are estimated at 8-9 percent, and there’s only one paid employee for every 600 volunteers, he added.

The Los Altos story

Relays tend to ebb and flow depending on the energy and effort the communities put in, according to Los Altos resident Jeanne MacVicar, who with her husband, Duncan, founded the Los Altos Relay. Jeanne continues her involvement as chairwoman of ceremonies and entertainment this year.

Diagnosed with breast cancer 27 years ago, Jeanne beat the disease and was approached by the American Cancer Society to start a Relay as a survivor.

Coordinating the event is “a pretty big deal,” according to Duncan, who is involved in an advisory capacity this year.

Moving the Relay to Egan last year helped organizers “present it the way it has to be presented,” Duncan said.

Although representatives at Los Altos High School, the previous venue, were supportive, “we couldn’t use candles (in the luminary bags) because of the artificial turf on its fields,” Skitt said. “We used glow sticks because we didn’t want to damage anything.”

He added that tents for overnight campers couldn’t be pitched on the high school field.

Sponsors’ support

Although it’s been difficult to get sponsors, tough economic times have not quelled the philanthropic spirit of the Los Altos and Los Altos Hills community, according to Alan Russell and Jan Masters, Relay’s sponsorship co-chairpersons.

Russell said they have exceeded this year’s goal of $53,000 in sponsor contributions and in-kind donations.

“We have received more than $58,000 so far and we expect more – nearly $200,000,” Russell said. “It’s been a challenge in the last few years.”

“The business community has been very supportive, not only with cash donations, but with in-kind donations as well,” Masters said.

Focusing more on youth outreach this year, the organizers approached area community colleges and schools, Russell said. Foothill College and several elementary schools have registered teams.

“We’d like to have teams as large as possible so that one team member is always present on the track, relay-style,” Russell said. “But we do not require that, and even small teams with two or three members are OK. We want it to be as family-friendly as possible.”

The event is free, and community members can attend of whether or not they want to fundraise. Participants may sign up in advance and solicit pledges or register on Saturday at the start of the Relay. Russell said there would be opportunities to contribute at the event, such as purchasing food or lap beads.

Families gather to remember

The 24-hour event is likely to draw nearly 400 participants, including more than 200 survivors, Skitt said.

With joy and sorrow, hope and despair, individuals and families walk or run laps around the Egan track to celebrate those who survived cancer and remember those who succumbed. Participants fight back by raising money for research, prevention and advocacy programs.

“Relay is all about love and anger,” Jeanne said. “It empowers survivors and celebrates victories.”

Cancer is “a very isolating experience” that affects those afflicted along with everyone around them, she said.

“Our family got cancer, but I got the symptoms,” Jeanne said. “But I’ve always felt very, very fortunate (to have survived).”

Not forgetting those less fortunate, Jeanne – like many others – remembers them during the Saturday-night Luminaria ceremony by walking slowly around the track and reading the names on every lit and decorated luminary bag, each signifying a person who lost their life to cancer.

“Each luminary bag represents a story,” Jeanne said. “It’s a way to help people process their grief.”

“Relay is one of the few places I know – a safe place – where you can go to grieve and laugh and celebrate with best friends whom you don’t even know,” Masters said. “You can get a much broader human experience.”

According to Duncan, it’s an emotional yet wonderful experience.

“Unfortunately, every family has been touched by cancer. What better way to celebrate Father’s Day?” he asked.

It’s also a day to enjoy good entertainment and the company of others in a positive environment, Jeanne said.

With an overarching “Follow the Purple Brick Road to Life” theme, attendees can enjoy a mix of entertainment, including music from keyboardist Dirk Damonte and Jenn Grinels and selections from the “Wizard of Oz”; games and activities for children of all ages; a raffle with tickets to the Celebrity Forum Speaker Series and a Day on the Bay; and Survivor’s Luncheon featuring inspirational speaker Joel ben Izzy.

Teams are invited to pitch tents on the field in the interior of the track and spend the night. The minimum age for those who plan to camp overnight is 18. A children’s story time with milk and cookies is scheduled 10 p.m. Saturday, followed by a pajama walk at 10:30 p.m. and a sing-along at 11 p.m.

Breakfast will be served Sunday morning.

To become a sponsor or in-kind donor, contact Russell at 947-2296.

For more information, visit www.relayforlife.org/losaltosca.

For more information and to register for Relay For Life, visit www.relayforlife.org/losaltosca

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