‘Hope big, dream big, relay big’

Five-year-old Levi Jansen, left, and his 6-year-old sister, Lauren, are introduced by their grandmother, Becky Ogren, right, to a woman prior to the start of Friday’s Relay for Life at Pony Stadium. (Gazette staff photos by Erik Sandin)

Relay for Life participants walk on in cancer fight

OAK PARK HEIGHTS — As clouds drifted over the St Croix Valley early Friday evening prior to the start of the annual American Cancer Society Relay for Life River of Hope Classic, one participant was concerned about rain.

But relay organizer and cancer survivor Sue Baldwin told the crowd at Stillwater Area High School’s Pony Stadium the clouds had a different meaning.

“Earlier today we had clouds roll in and somebody said it was going to rain and I said, no, it’s just Zach watching over us,” Baldwin said.

Former SAHS senior Zach Sobiech was on the minds of many who walked Friday night and Saturday in the relay. Sobiech and his family were honored at this year’s event just a few months after cancer claimed Sobiech weeks before his class graduated. Baldwin reminded those at the relay about Zach Sobiech’s work raising money for cancer research.

“Zach relayed last year and was one of our top fundraisers,” she said.

There were reminders of Sobiech around Pony Stadium. Luminaries on the stadium’s smaller east bleachers were set up to spell “Zach” and there were other luminaries on the track in Sobiech’s memory. Sobiech’s family was scheduled to attend the 10 p.m. luminarie lighting ceremony.

Along with honoring Sobiech, the relay also was about those who have survived bouts with cancer and caregivers helping those fighting the disease.

Another relay worker, Christina Manelli, recalled how her father dying three days after being diagnosed with lung cancer was the reason she got involved in the relay effort.

“We want to make a difference in the fight against cancer,” she said. “We will continue to fight back so no one here will have to hear the words, ‘You have cancer.’ Remember, the people you are walking for and all their time on Earth.”

Caregiver Samantha Peterson said she was participating in the relay to remember her father, who died after a four-year battle against cancer and who walked in last year’s Relay for Life.

“He told me that the relay was the only place he could be himself without people looking at his medical devices,” she said.

Peterson also praised caregivers at the relay and noted how much she learned by watching her ailing parents care for each other.

“Being a caregiver can be sometimes physically and emotionally draining. As a caregiver, I learned so many lessons,” she said. “I watched my parents both care for each other with unconditional love.”

The opening ceremony also included singer Sammy Brown — who sang with Sobiech — and guitarist Reed Redmond perform the song, “Star Hopping,” and the Rev. Michael Miller, pastor of the Church of St. Michael, read a prayer written by the late Pope John Paul II.

In addition, three lucky relay participants won prizes in the event raffle. Jeff Lynn won the grand prize, a car donated by Stillwater Motor Co.; Jessica Fife won first prize of an original painting, and Dave Wolf won second prize of an iPod with a sampler music set.

But maybe the best example of why participation in area’s Relay for Life grows each year is Stillwater resident Becky Ogren. Ogren was walking on the stadium track with two grandchildren prior to the start of the relay when she was asked why she took part in the event. Her reason was very personal, she said.

“We have a team in memory of my son, Nick,” Ogren said. “He died at the age of 25 of Hodgkin’s. Nick’s Posse is our team. This is our third year with this team. I used to walk with the Stillwater Medical Group where I work. I started this team when my son died.”
Ogren’s team, along with many other relay teams walking in memory of a loved one lost to cancer, symbolize the attitude of Valley residents about the relay, according to Manelli.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that in Stillwater, we hope big, we dream big and we relay big,” she said.

Contact Erik Sandin at erik.sandin@ecm-inc.com