As Wendy Colantuono sat on the Clinton Dark Horse stadium bleachers at Saturday’s Relay for Life, amid luminaries that spelled out “HOPE” across the seats, she shared her gratitude for the many people who gave their time, effort and money to those who so desperately need it.
“Every person sitting in this crowd has been touched by cancer in some way,” said Colantuono, chairperson for the local Relay event, as she took a brief respite in the shade provided by the press box. “It’s not just our little town — it’s everywhere.”
While not the massive two-day spectacle it was in its heyday, organizers said what has made Relay for Life in Sampson County so beautiful over the years was still very much on display during the one-day Saturday event, as survivors and caregivers, and numerous dedicated teams, put on a Disney-themed event to aid cancer patients and research.
The torch walk that opened the event was held in memory of Wanda Boyette and in honor of young Jackson Tucker, whose family participated in the survivors walk along with many others.
Leading up to Saturday’s event, $73,000 had already been raised. Angela Crain, community manager for the American Cancer Society, said Monday that the total stood at $78,751, noting some rain showers that hampered the end of the event.
“We are going to have to wrap up in June to have money turned in,” said Crain. “I’m hoping we’ll finish around $90,000.”
Last year, the Sampson County chapter raised more than $100,000 to be given to the American Cancer Society. This year, there was an optimistic goal of $132,000. Fundraising is ongoing until Aug. 31.
“We are smaller this year,” said Crain, who chalked it up to the effect of Hurricane Matthew on some teams, who are still recovering. Other local events, and even the heat, may have kept others away. The event went from a two-day event Friday and Saturday in early June to just a single-day event on Friday. This year, the one-day event was switched to a Saturday and moved up to May.
“We thought having it in May, it would be cooler,” said Crain, who also escaped into the shade of a near-90 degree day for a few moments Saturday. “But the Sampson County weather gods had different ideas.”
In all, there were 29 teams, 20 of which were at Relay. There were 63 torches and 725 luminaries sold and three teams held a yard sale on Saturday morning, something they plan to do again next year, Crain noted.
Many of the survivors stayed under a tent centrally placed in the Dark Horse football field and listened to Eastline Band, a local group who played some oldies and beach music. There was plenty of food and dancing, along with some children’s rides and bouncey houses.
The American Cancer Society brands the event, providing everything with the ACS and Relay of Life logos on it, but the event has always been community driven.
“Relay is down as a whole,” said Crain, who served as ACS community manager for four different events, including neighboring Duplin. She hoped that would change. “We have a lot of new teams that I think will bring a new energy and excitement to this event. The good thing about Sampson County is it’s a team out here. We all work together.”
Crain specifically praised Colantuono for a “fantastic job” as event chairperson, along with the rest of the leadership, which included Lisa Stewart, Kay Hollingsworth, Jerry Bradshaw and Michelle Parker. Patricia Nelson did a “tremendous job spoiling the survivors,” Crain noted.
“It was exciting. It was challenging,” said Colantuono of being at the helm. “I couldn’t ask for a better person to work with than Angela, and we had a fantastic crew — team leaders, staff, everyone was excellent this year.”
No stranger to Relay or to serving her community, Colantuono has been a Relay team leader for several years. She is also a firefighter and EMT with Vann Crossroads Fire Department, a member of the Roseboro Rescue Dive Team and an honor guardsman for the Sampson County Fallen Firefighters.
Like so many others, she has also been affected by cancer.
Colantuono had a bout with breast cancer, but said it was nothing like what some of the other women have endured. There was no chemotherapy, and Colantuono conceded she was fortunate not to have to undergo some of the more painful procedures others have. As the local Relay event chair and cancer survivor, Colantuono is well aware of the struggle families go through.
She has seen many family members battle the disease through the years, including her brother Perry Stewart, a survivor of esophageal cancer. Perry and Wendy were among the first to walk, hand in hand, through the arch of balloons on Saturday on their way toward the survivors victory lap.
Following Saturday’s survivors walk at Sampson County’s Relay for Life, local cancer survivors stood together to form a large purple ribbon, the universal sign of cancer awareness and symbol of hope to all those affected by the disease.
“I relay for my family members who have had cancer,” she said. “Some of my dear friends are battling cancer. I’m not here for myself, I’m here for them. You see children out here, children like little Jackson and others, and your heart just breaks for them. They have not even had a chance to get into their life. They’re so young. As a parent, my heart goes out to them.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.