Homer ready to relay

In five years the annual Homer Relay for Life has become one of the town’s bigger cancer fundraisers. The overnight event starts at 5 p.m. Friday at the Homer High School parking lot with a survivor and caregiver reception.

While raising money for the American Cancer Society is the big goal, Relay for Life also celebrates survivors of cancers, honors their caregivers and remembers those who fought hard and lost.

“For me, the best part is the whole fighting back,” said Kelly Cooper, leader, of Team Cooper and the PanCan Warriors. “We fought and lost. It’s easy to stay sad and angry. I like for us to look forward and see other people are surviving.”

Cooper’s husband Jim died in January 2011 of pancreatic cancer. This is the second year her team, composed of family and a core group of high school students, has been in Relay for Life.

The relay in the title is a 22-hour walk around the Homer High School parking lot, but it’s also a big party and campout. Teams set up tents, decorated in this year’s circus theme of “hope big, dream big under the Big Top” and wearing the purple, the universal color for all cancers. They also have been raising money through other events over the past two months, including car washes and spaghetti feeds. 

As of press time Relay for Life had raised $50,000 of its $80,000 goal, said co-chair Tammy Ackerman.

Relay for Life opening ceremonies start at 6:15 p.m. The relay itself starts with a survivor recognition lap and a caregiver and survivor lap. Ackerman said about 50 survivors will probably attend with about that many caregivers.

“It’s amazing who you see wearing purple on the survivor lap you didn’t know,” Ackerman said of how many people in Homer have endured cancer. Joining humans on the survivor walk also will be dogs who have survived cancer.

A somber moment is the lighting of the luminaries at 11:15 p.m. People can purchase luminaries — paper bag and sand candle lanterns — to honor family and friends lost to cancer. Relay for Life includes small fundraisers like that throughout the night, from a silent auction to food and drink sales. Some teams are made of survivors and families, while others are from offices and businesses.

To keep spirits up throughout the night and early morning, there is music from Shamwari marimba, the Eight Mile Band, Karaoke with Dax and from midnight to 2 a.m. a 1970s themed “Flower Power” prom. At sunrise about 5:30 a.m. there’s also a Bed Head Hair contest.

Team Cooper also will be livening up its hairstyles with a special fundraiser: for every $50 raised, a member will dye his or her hair purple. One team member, high school student Caleb Lunsford, has been raising money — $200 so far — by letting people throw pies at him. Cooper said she’s been impressed by the hard work of the teen members of her team.

“It’s just amazing to have a bunch of high school student who are so compassionate,” she said.

People wanting to donate can drop in anytime, Ackerman said.

“Drop in during the relay, walk a couple of laps, chat with people who have been affected,” she said.

Money raised goes to the American Cancer Society, but it comes back to Homer in the forms of programs that help local cancer patients such as transportation to and housing at advance cancer treatment centers and wigs and clothing for breast cancer patients. The American Cancer Society also supports research programs which can benefit Homer people seeking treatment at Lower 48 hospitals, particularly for rare cancers and new clinical trials, Ackerman said.

For her family, Cooper will keep the relay going beyond Saturday with Purple Stride on June 15 in Washington, D.C., an event for pancreatic cancer awareness. Cooper said she plans to lobby the Alaska congressional delegation for support of the Recalcitrant Cancer Act, which targets cancers those of the stomach, colon and pancreas. Cooper’s daughter, Veronica Wheiters, also is the Alaska representative for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

Cooper said the survivors walk in itself can be inspirational, particularly for people recently diagnosed with cancer.

“The people who are on that track, you had no idea they had fought and won,” she said. “People who are dealing with it, they see that optimism and joy. It helps them fight better.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.