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Despite cloudy skies, more than 30 teams gathered on the grassy area inside the track between Weber Middle School and Schreiber High School to celebrate life and to raise funds to battle cancer. They came together in Port Washington's first Relay For Life, an American Cancer Society event to support its mission to reduce the incidence, reduce deaths, and improve the quality of life of those with cancer. Close to $80 thousand was raised.

Relay For Life began with a special dinner for survivors and ended with tai chi and clean up at sunrise. In between, there were brief speeches by those who organized, researched, and experienced cancer in some aspect of their lives. There was lots of fun, entertainment, walking, of course, and a stirring, spectacular luminary ceremony.

The rain finally ended on the morning of June 15, and organizers started arriving to set up and, under the direction of Noelle Faure, Laurie Rup and Mary Kay, fill more than 2,400 luminary bags with sand and candles to be placed around the track. Each bag held the name of someone who was diagnosed with cancer. The luminaria which lined the track and overflowed to cover the periphery as well, are a remembrance of those we've lost and hope for those who are currently battling cancer as well as those who have fought it in the past.

Arriving simultaneously were teams laden with coolers, bed rolls, sleeping bags, games, tents and canopies, preparing to take turns walking around the track through the night. Teams came from Glen Cove, Jericho, Locust Valley, many, of course, from Port Washington, as well as team members from all over Long Island, Queens, New Jersey. The Úquot;Long Island CousinsÚquot; team, who were celebrating Chris Vitti's last chemotherapy treatment, came from as far as Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

Following a beautiful Survivors' Reception organized by Jill Hill, Helene Entwistle, and Peggy Silbert for about 80 cancer survivors and guests, with dinner donated by Landmark Diner and beautiful table flower arrangements created and donated by Joan Smith, and the lovely voice of cancer survivor, Gabriella Lamb, official ceremonies began on the field.

Jackie Spielman, chairperson of Relay For Life, welcomed participants. Úquot;We're all probably here for the same reason. A member of our family, a friend, a co-worker has faced a diagnosis of cancer. It is certainly one of the most frightening findings anyone can face. But through the American Cancer Society, and its funding of research, advocacy, education, and patient and family services, we are making progress. We are finding answers. The many survivors here tonight are a testament to progress and hope. Tonight we will take steps ... literally ... to continue that good work.Úquot;

Mrs. Spielman, who brought Relay to Port Washington, expressed special thanks to retiring Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Albert F. Inserra, Buildings and Grounds Director, Eric Vonderhorst, and his assistant, Marion Ritigliano, Special Events Director at the American Cancer Society, Ted Vlavianos, the Úquot;very special, smart, energetic women who served as committee chairs,Úquot; and finally, her husband and son for their support and patience.

After a heartfelt benediction written and delivered by Reverend Aggie Lasetchuk, Port Washington children carried the flag on stage and the wonderful Weber Middle School Singers, under the director of Pam Gelb, sang a distinctive, stirring a cappella version of the national anthem.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories researcher, Michael Wigler, MD, PhD, one among many who have received ACS research grants, discussed the scientific breakthroughs that have improved the chances for survival and those that currently hold so much promise for those diagnosed with cancer. Ted Vlavianos, cancer survivor, who followed Dr. Wigler, recounted his experience of being given a standard protocol chemotherapy that wasn't working. His prognosis for survival was estimated at 10 percent when he was placed in a clinical trial with a new therapy. That was 10 years ago. Ted indicated that he is healthy and grateful to the oncologist who placed him in a clinical trial and to the researchers who continue their quest to unlock the cancer codes. That concluded the more formal aspects of Relay, and an evening of excitement, fun, and poignancy followed.

Cancer survivors then lined up behind the Relay For Life banner and took the first lap around the track, to the strains of Úquot;Don't Stop ... thinking about tomorrowÚquot; as both walkers and those cheering them on fought back tears. The second lap, equally emotional, was walked by the survivors and those they designated (with a yellow ribbon) gave them exceptional care and support during their time of crisis. Then the track filled with all of the participants as they passed the campsites of the Úquot;Pajama Mamas,Úquot; Úquot;The Butterflies,Úquot; Úquot;Raging Hormones,Úquot; Úquot;Barbara's Buddies,Úquot; Úquot;Against All Odds,Úquot; Úquot;Beach Babes,Úquot; Úquot;Sousa Stars,Úquot; Úquot;Team Medics Shoot for the Stars,Úquot; Úquot;Grey Goose,Úquot; Úquot;Team Dri-Mark,Úquot; Úquot;Cancer, It's History,Úquot; Úquot;Sunrunners,Úquot; Úquot;The IslandersÚquot; Úquot;The Swedish Blonds,Úquot; Úquot;St. Stephen's Youth GroupÚquot; and so many others.

As the light grew dim and walkers passed the showmobile where the Red Stocking Revue, belly dancers, an a cappella group entertained, and one could detect the aroma of hamburgers and hot dogs being cooked for the crowd by Bev Reese and members of the fire department, all anticipated the highlight of the evening, the luminary ceremony.

The ceremony began with Craig Johnson, Nassau County legislator. Mr. Johnson spoke of his mother, Barbara, who preceded him in the legislature and died of breast cancer early in 2000. He spoke of her struggle and of her efforts to inform the women of Port Washington about this disease. Each year, Barbara Johnson held a meeting in Port Washington at which the top physicians from Memorial Sloan-Kettering would talk about the latest advances in detection and treatment of breast cancer. Craig Johnson has continued to hold that meeting in October and pledged to continue his mother's commitment to eradicate this disease.

Candy Rossettie, co-chairperson with Joan Tolk of the Activities Committee, introduced Ann Bollerman, the daughter of the late Barbara Bollerman. Barbara was first diagnosed with cancer when Ann was 7 years old, again four years later and for the third time a few months ago. Ann, a lovely, mature, highly poised 10th year Schreiber student, recalled how Barbara maintained a fighting spirit and hope. Úquot;She was determined not to let this horrible thing get the best of her...She didn't let it interfere with her life and especially made an effort for it not to interfere with mine.Úquot; Ann spoke of the difficulty of losing her mother, Úquot;but it was a comfort to see my family and friends gather together and help me as well as one another, through a very challenging time.Úquot;

Úquot;That sense of unity was what attracted me to Relay For Life ....the idea of hundreds of people getting together not only in memory of those who have passed but also to honor those who have lived, touched my heart. I knew immediately that I wanted to involve myself in this, to contribute in raising money, to aid in the fight against cancer, and to do my little bit, because every little bit makes a difference.Úquot;

Following Ann's inspiring talk, Jackie Spielman, a cancer survivor, was presented with a bouquet of thanks for bringing Relay For Life to Port Washington and for serving as chairperson in organizing the event. She then set a flame to a ceremonial candle, and asked all on the field to light the luminaries closest to them. Gabriella Lamb, sang an original composition, We Shall Walk On. Within minutes, friends and strangers alike participated in quickly lighting more than 2,400 candles. Families and friends, some 450 strong, gathered around those candles that were most meaningful to them. Some shed tears, some merely sat quietly, some laughed and cried at the same time, some remarked at the names of people they didn't realize had cancer, some prayed. Both sides of the track were now encircled with candles in a visually striking display of hope and remembrance.

Participants took to the track once again and the evening continued with a Salsa band, a spontaneous conga line, followed by a blues band, a long line to consult with psychic, Yanna, a group of local musicians who began playing together while students at Schreiber High School, and solo guitarist, Mark Spezio, who exchanged glances with those walking the track at 2, 3, and 4 a.m., and smiled.

The sunrise broke through a low morning fog as Jodi Scharfman Goldstein led a group in tai chi, as the breakdown and clean up began. The campsites were gone but the memories and strength of many will linger on.

There are plans to make Relay For Life even bigger and better next year. Make a difference, plan to be there.


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