By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
East Hawaii residents gathered at Wong Stadium on Saturday night to kick off the 21st staging of Hilo’s annual American Cancer Society Relay for Life.
The popular fundraiser has grown at a rapid pace over the years, organizers said, becoming the largest Relay for Life event in the state.
“This event is all about celebrating the victories people in our community have had over cancer over the years, as well as remembering those that didn’t win their battles,” said event chairman Lee Lord. “My belief is that the Hilo community just has one of the most giving spirits. There’s a real sense of family here, and we all know somebody touched by cancer.”
Relay for Life is the American Cancer Society’s main fundraiser, with communities across the nation, as well as many other countries, holding events. Teams raise funds and then participate in an overnight relay around a track — signifying the fact that cancer never sleeps.
“It’s a mirror image of what many people with cancer go through,” Lord said with emotion bubbling up in his voice. “Just like when someone first learns they have cancer, it’s like going into the night, the dark. But, then it’s about coming out the other side, the morning, when the sun comes up.”
The money teams raise goes to support the American Cancer Society’s support for various patient service programs, such as helping women who have lost their hair due to chemotherapy treatment with makeup and wigs, or providing cancer patients with rides to and from doctor appointments, Lord said.
“It also goes to supporting research, education and outreach,” he said.
This year, 103 teams comprised of 1,324 people signed up to participate in Hilo. That’s a record turnout, said event organizer Kathy Hashimoto.
“We sold out of spaces on the field (at Wong Stadium) two months in advance,” she said. “And, including our virtual online teams, we’ve got about 120 teams total.”
Hours before the walk kicked off with the traditional Survivor’s Lap at 6:15 p.m., Laurie Espiritu was busy putting the finishing touches on her team’s tent. A receptionist at Gastroenterology Associates Inc., Espiritu said she and her colleagues have been participating in the Relay for Life since it began in Hilo in the early ’90s.
“I’ve had family and friends with cancer,” she said. “Also, where we work, we deal with cancer, and our patients are like family.”
Her team is always a top fundraiser, and going into the event Saturday had a total of almost $11,000, she said. The secret to their success is that everyone participates, even their patients.
“We send out letters and ask them if they’d like to help,” she said. “Also, it’s just a lot of fun for us. We like to do it.”
Before the event, the various teams had raised almost $200,000 in total, according to the American Cancer Society website, acsevents.org.
The top money raisers included the Hawaii Island Credit Unions team with $11,941.38, Gastroenterology Associates Inc. with $10,344, and Isemoto Contracting Co. Ltd. with $6,275.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.