BY JUSTIN DENNIS
WINDBER – Hundreds of heroes big and small, young and old, joined forces at Windber Recreation Park on Friday to take up the fight against cancer.
Although a handful of caped crimefighters cameoed on signs and nonprofit merchandise at the 13th Windber Relay for Life, the event was meant to honor those who don’t have extraordinary strength or speed.
“Not All Heroes Wear Capes” was this year’s unique fundraising theme. First-time event committee chairwoman Susan Shaffer said this year’s relay had a very large turnout – 15 fundraising teams with 194 total members.
This year’s monetary goal is $92,000, Shaffer said. By Friday, she estimated the relay had drawn in around $70,000. The grand total will be announced at the closing ceremony Saturday, but donations will be collected through August.
“Every team has their own site and they can do raffles and different things and sales,” she said.
Funds raised through the gamut of attractions and vendors go toward the American Cancer Society – like the homemade cake auction or the “car bash,” which was new this year.
Relay team “The Big ‘C’ Fighters” brought in a junker car and a sledgehammer and charged per whack or by the minute. Spray-painted on the side was “Cancer Sucks.”
“The car was marked (with) different cancers, so if that (cancer) is personally affecting you, you can bash it,” Shaffer said. It’s meant to be cathartic, “but in a comical way.”
Generations ago, cancer was not as prevalent a disease as it is today, she said.
“Now, sadly, kids know what cancer is because it’s so rampant around you,” she said. “It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter what color, nationality, age – it doesn’t matter.
“It hits you.”
Windber Area Elementary teacher Ronda McGee, who’s been on the relay committee since its first year, said she’s seen it firsthand.
Although the superhero theme helped engage the local youth, she said the relay is about more than heroic ideals or a charitable cause – it’s paying tribute to absent friends.
Some of the dozen or so Windber Area high school students who volunteer with her each year lost a classmate to cancer when they were in sixth grade. Now, those girls are high school juniors, she said, and remain active in the relay.
“When we were in fourth grade, we made these paper cranes because she had just been diagnosed,” McGee said.
The group crafted 1,000 of them in their classmate’s honor and sold them at the relay event that year.
They were inspired by the book “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” which they all read together in fourth grade.
“I had an 18-year-old (student) that died,” McGee continued. “She came (to the relay) once with her grandma, then the next year she came as a survivor, wore her shirt and said, ‘I’m gonna be fine, Mrs. McGee.’
“And the next year, she was gone.”
Those who lost the fight to cancer also are honored each year during the luminaria event.
Shaffer said there were more than 800 decorated bags lit up over the relay course last year.
Each bag represented a cancer survivor or a loved one lost.
A slide show of their photos was set to music and played alongside the dusk and nighttime walkers.
McGee echoed this year’s “hero” theme.
“They walk among us,” she said. “It’s the person that battles cancer and works to ‘Finish the Fight’ (which is the American Cancer Society Relay motto),” she said. “And it is the person that walks alongside.
“Some lose the battle but some continue on,” she said.
“You stand with the families as they go through it or after their loss.
“Or as they continue on with their lives.”
Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @JustinDennis.