My wife and I did something special this past Friday evening. We attended a Relay for Life in our hometown of Thomasville GA. And the memories of the event will not be soon forgotten, for so many reasons.
I have lived in Thomasville for the past 13 years. It is a town in southwest GA, just north of the Georgia-Florida state line, with some manufacturing, lots of farming, a major company headquarters, lots of small businesses...in many ways a typical Southern small town. Population is about 18,500 with more in the surrounding counties. It is diverse, it is not wealthy, and it has its own charm and its own struggles. But for me it has been a wonderful place to live and to be part of a growing family that is now spread across our great nation.
Relay has been part of Thomas County for many years. And although I have attended in the past, it was always as a visitor to share the moment with others, all of whom come to Relay for their own very personal and special reasons. Frequently I couldn't attend Relay in Thomasville because of other work related demands which required me to be in Atlanta (our main national office) or travel somewhere around the country.
This year was different. Because of a series of life events I have been working from home, and traveling from the neighboring airport. Then I got an email from my staff colleague at the Society who asked me if I would keynote Thomasville's Relay kickoff 6PM on Friday. She was surprised to find out that one of the Society's senior executives lived in Thomasville, and thought it would be a great opportunity to connect with the community.
As we left our house on the way to the Relay site, my wife and I talked about what I should say. "What can I offer to these folks who are my neighbors that would really make a difference?" I asked. And the answer came to me quickly: They make the difference. That is what Relay is all about.
This is not a particularly huge Relay for Life event. But the crowd swelled over time from hundreds to about a thousand. There was laughter and there were tears. There were kids playing football (that's a big thing here in Thomasville, where several young men have gone on to play for top ranked college and professional teams). We spoke to a husband whose young wife had just been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer two weeks ago, and with the family of a young woman who lost her life to cancer two years ago after a battle of about 10 years long. We stopped at the raffle booth where the teachers and staff from a local elementary school were raffling gift baskets, and we said hello to the staff and physicians from the local eye center who have been such an important part of my life for the past 4 months as I went through various eye surgeries. Our insurance agent was there, as was the local drug store. And let's not forget the local manufacturer who had brought in a juiced up cooker, complete with wood and propane barbecuing options and a large prominent chrome smokestack along with fryers hooked on the side to make some really good fried tilapia and French fries, not to mention delicious boiled peanuts.
But the stars in the sky last night were the survivors who walked the first lap around the track to continuing applause, and the caregivers, and the supporters. Everyone was there because they wanted to be there, everyone was there because they needed to be there, to hope, to share, to celebrate, to mourn. All in a place that for one evening was a special place. This is what community is all about.
So what about the speech? The speech was really not the important part of the evening. Sometimes the less said the better. But the theme was about the difference that people can make. Relay for Life is about one doctor walking around a track in the mid-1980s growing to a nationwide and international movement to not only raise money for cancer, not only to raise awareness of cancer, but to raise hope and offer comfort that for those who survive, and those who are no longer with us but remain blessed in our hearts, knowing there is a place to go where you can gain pride and gain hope.
All those Relayers that night in Thomasville GA are part of a legacy of millions of people who have done the same thing for so many years in so many places that has accomplished so much. Cancer research that has changed the way we look at the disease and how we treat it, survivorship programs including patient navigation that in some way makes life just a bit easier at a very difficult time. Information that is accurate and informative and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And the list could go on. That's what it means to make a difference.
And although those thousand or so people who came to Relay last night were there each for their own reasons, every one of them who were there made a difference with their hearts, with their blessings, with their smiles, with their applause, with their love. And they make a difference every day in ways they will never know.
Because of them, the American Cancer Society is working on their behalf to truly make this cancer's last century. Without them-from the teacher who sold us the raffle ticket to the woman who gave us those wonderful boiled peanuts to the survivors who walked around that track with love and with pride (including the last one, who struggled to make the round, but who garnered the loudest applause and shouts of the night because she did it her way)- there would be no Relay and there would be no American Cancer Society able to do what it does.
So to the Relayers in Thomas County GA and to the Relayers nationwide: thank you from our hearts for all that you do. You really do make a difference in so many ways, at Relay and every day of the year.