This year marks 100 years since the American Cancer Society (ACS) was founded by 15 physicians and businessmen in New York City.
ACS has contributed to the fight against all forms of cancer through education, research and annual events — such as Relay for Life — held all over the country.
It wasn't until nine years ago that South Walton was a part of the Relay fun thanks to sponsorship chairperson, Alicia Keeter, who has spent the past 13 years volunteering with ACS.
"It was a huge undertaking," Keeter said.
The South Walton Relay for Life has its challenges. The committee has only a handful of volunteers — they call themselves the Relay Divas — handling the annual event and has trouble drawing in the crowds off 30A.
"If we could just get one person to come from 30A, then we've succeeded," said event chairperson Valerie Brunson.
Relay for Life volunteers rely on the kindness of their community to make the event happen. Last year, necessities such as tents, stage, tables and chairs were all donated. When it comes to shopping for each year's Relay, Brunson said she's looking for goods that are "free or less." Brunson and Keeter credit businesses such as Chelco and Grand Boulevard for their generosity.
Whatever obstacles they face as volunteers, Brunson and Keeter dedicate more than 20 hours a week on top of their full-time jobs because of the affects cancer has had in their personal lives. Both have lost family and close friends to various types of cancer. As more friends and family face the disease, these women just keep fighting.
"We just want to see an end to cancer," Brunson said. "We bleed purple."
Purple is the color associated with Relay for Life. Even on a regular Monday afternoon, Keeter and Brunson have bits and pieces of purple represented — whether it's their jewelry, purses or even iPhone covers.
With the 100 year birthday of ACS, marks a new campaign for the nonprofit: Finish the Fight. At the overnight Relay for Life event, teams comprised of friends, co-workers, cancer survivors and more celebrate the lives that were lost to cancer and honor those still fighting the battle. A representative of each team has to be on the Relay track at all times, but the first lap, the victory lap, is for cancer survivors. As the survivors make their way around the track, they are celebrated with a loud and energetic applause.
This year's Relay for Life theme is "Teaming up Against Cancer." All attendees are encouraged to dress the part, whether they're representing a sport or even academic teams such as debate or chess. There will be music, games, and even a birthday celebration for ACS, but there will be no sleeping.
"Cancer doesn't sleep and neither do we," Keeter said.
The event symbolizes a day in the life of a cancer patient, Brunson said. As the night goes on and people start to feel tired from walking and event activities, they get a sense of what cancer patients endure. When the sun comes up the following day, it represents the end of treatment.
Beyond the symbolism, Relay for Life is a fundraiser. South Walton's goal is $50,000. Money raised goes toward the American Cancer Society to use in service, education advocacy and research.
Along with various parties and team meetings, which are all open to the public, the South Walton Relay committee is hosting a Bark for Life event prior to their Relay. The Bark for Life includes a dog parade, costume contest and agility course. The Walton County Sheriff's Office will also be there with their K-9 unit as well as local rescue groups with adoptable pups.
Even after years of Relays and countless volunteer hours, Brunson and Keeter still get excited when the annual Relay is upcoming. Brunson hopes people learn more about how cancer affects everyone's life.
"I want them to remember this event and come back next year and do it all over again," she said.
"Once you get there and see those people having a good time and being passionate... it's better than any other type of payment," added Keeter.
Want to go?
The Bark for Life will begin at 9:30 a.m., May 4 at The Village of Baytowne Wharf. Pre-registration for each dog is $10 or $20 on the day of event. To become a sponsor, or for more information, contact Alicia Keeter at 687-0968 or email@example.com.
The Relay for Life begins at 6 p.m. on May 17 and ends at 11 a.m. May 18 at Grand Boulevard. For more information, visit relayforlife.org/southwaltonfl
Want to become a supporter of Relay for Life?
Teams can register up until the day of the event. If you would like to start a team to camp out at Relay for Life, visit relayforlife.org/southwaltonfl. For more information, contact Valerie Brunson at 687-0283 or firstname.lastname@example.org.