The 20th annual American Cancer Society Relay For Life in Merrill last weekend brought people together to celebrate those who have been touched by cancer, remember loved ones lost, and take action for lifesaving change.
Looking back on the history of the event, the first Merrill Relay was held in August 1998, organized by Linda and Scott Doerr. Eight teams participated that first year, with $25,000 raised. The luminaria bags that have become a staple of the event were spaced well apart around the track; in recent relays, the large number of luminaria form a solid line around the walking track.
River Valley Bank has been a corporate sponsor from the beginning. Holy Cross Sisters were also instrumental in promoting the event from the start.
The 1999 Merrill Relay doubled the fundraising of the previous year, with $50,000 donated to the American Cancer Society. Cancer survivors shared their stories during the opening ceremony, a tradition which continues today with a Hero of Hope chosen each year.
Merrill’s support of the Relay for Life has been repeatedly recognized by the American Cancer Society. In 2005, Merrill’s Relay received the Most Registered Survivors Per Capita award. In 2007, the Merrill Relay raised over $100,000. Merrill received the First Place Proceeds Per Capita award in 2008, and the team from Church Mutual Insurance Company was recognized as Wisconsin’s top fundraising team. Merrill has also been named a Top 10 Nationwide Community for its Relay for Life efforts.
At this year’s opening ceremony, Merrill Relay Chairperson Deloris Bauman called Merrill’s support of the Relay for Life “beyond remarkable.” She drew attention to signs at the entrances to the city proclaiming Merrill as a Relay for Life Community.
“With all the businesses that donate year after year and all the generous people of this town, yes indeed this is a Relay for Life Community,” Bauman said.
This year’s Hero of Hope was Kathleen Iriarte, who moved to the Merrill area to take a job at Church Mutual two years ago. Last year, she was diagnosed with cancer. Facing a frightening disease, Iriarte found herself far from her familiar support system.
“One year into my new life and new career and, bam, I have breast cancer,” she said.
Iriarte found an outpouring of support from new friends and a new community. She received strength and encouragement from her co-workers at Church Mutual.
“One of the first people I reached out to was Liz Hanz, also a breast cancer survivor, who gave me the courage to talk about what was going on with others,” she said.
Iriarte listed those in her new community who have helped her during her battle with cancer.
“You made me feel welcomed and not alone,” she said.
That support helped give her the strength to beat cancer, Iriarte noted.
“Eventually the fear, hurt and grief wash off,” she said. “But it takes a caring community to get there. To the caring community of Merrill and Church Mutual, I would not have come out as strong and positive without your help.”
Despite a rainy start that moved the opening ceremony into the Sell Building Friday night, the Merrill Relay went on through the night into Saturday morning at the Merrill Festival Grounds. Iriarte and other cancer survivors in attendance were recognized during the survivor celebration, and the took the opening lap of the Relay Friday night.
A new addition to the Relay, an impressive fireworks display was held at dusk Friday night, following the luminaria ceremony. Other activities included a big prize drawing, gift basket drawing, Grandpa’s Petting Zoo, Church Mutual Choir, mural painting by Andy Goretski as well as a variety of food and beverages after the show. The traditional Rotary Club Pancake Breakfast was held Saturday morning.
The Relay For Life movement is the world’s largest peer-to-peer fundraising event to save lives from cancer. Funds raised help the American Cancer Society attack cancer in dozens of ways, each of them critical to achieving a world without cancer. From developing breakthrough therapies to building supportive communities, from providing empowering resources to deploying activists to raise awareness.