It begins at dusk—the lighting of the rows of luminaries—each flickering candle in its white paper bag representing a family member or special friend. They seemingly go on for miles and provide a sublime beauty to the occasion as the names of the honored ones are read aloud to those gathered around the stage.
What happens just before the lighting—the survivor’s lap that kicks off the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) annual Relay for Life—might vary in terms of participants from year to year, but everyone hopes to see familiar faces walking the walk.
As the signature fund-raiser for the ACS’s ongoing research for a cancer cure, the Relay for Life offers communities across the country the chance to have a hand in the fight against cancer. Started in 1986, the relay features teams of eight to 15 people who camp out at a local high school or park and take turns walking or running around a track or path for as long as 24 hours. Each team is asked to have at least one member on the path throughout the event, and each member pledges to raise at least $100.
Though it’s just one of more than 3,000 towns and seven foreign countries holding an annual Relay for Life, the twin cities of Fulton, Ky., and South Fulton, Tenn., exemplify the miracles possible when communities truly connect.
Situated tightly together in southwestern Kentucky and northwestern Tennessee, the towns are split down the middle by a state line with a population of about 3,000 each. Both are home to solid, hard-working citizens.
The two towns mirror each other in many ways. Although each has its own school system, churches, and fire and police departments, they share an ambulance service and public library. About the biggest thing they have to argue about is which of their beloved sports is better—University of Tennessee football or Kentucky Wildcats basketball.
Since 1999, the Relay for Life has united the citizens of the twin cities and the surrounding area in a common bond like nothing else in recent memory. Fulton resident Sherry Elliott serves as chairman of the local event. Her commitment is of a personal nature.
“I had recently lost my best friend, Mrs. Sharla Green, to cancer and I was alternately going through stages of depression and of rage because of her death,” Elliott explains. “Although I had no idea what to expect, the Relay for Life offered an opportunity to aid in the search for a cure of this insidious disease that had taken my friend’s life.
“The Cancer Society set our goal at $12,000 that first year,” she continues, “and we raised $64,000. On a per capita basis, we ranked eighth in the nation for the most money raised.”
In both 2000 and 2001, they ranked fifth nationwide by raising $86,000 and $112,000, respectively.
Elliott calls the relay’s success a community effort. “First and foremost, our relay has been successful because of the participation of our people in Fulton and South Fulton and the immediate surrounding area. Secondly, it has been my extreme good fortune to be surrounded by committee chairmen and committee members who are totally dedicated to the search for a cure from cancer.”
Indeed, the relay has become a year-round event for the twin cities as corporate and individual teams began fund-raising efforts for the 2002 Relay—to be held June 7 and 8—almost immediately after the conclusion of the 2001 event. Fashion shows took place next to fried turkey sales, golf tournaments, and raffles.
One of the most important aspects of the Relay for Life is the sale each year of luminaries in memory of those who have succumbed to the disease, or in honor of those who continue to survive it. Lisa Hutchins has served as chairman of the luminary committee from the beginning. Having lost both parents, Carolyn and James Needham, to cancer, Hutchins didn’t hesitate when Elliott asked for her help. “I knew immediately that a relay in our community would be successful,” Hutchins says.
The luminaries encircle Pontotoc Park in Fulton where the relay is held. “As I’ve watched people walking down the line of luminaries searching for the name of a loved one, I have come to realize that our luminaries read like a who’s who of our heritage in the twin cities,” Hutchins says.
Elliott is optimistic that a cure for cancer will be found. “I know a cure is out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered, and if our efforts in the twin cities prove to be the catalyst that makes the discovery possible, or if we have helped to save even one life, then all the hard work … will not have been in vain.”