Yalies to fight cancer in Relay for Life

Hundreds of Yalies will stay up all night this Saturday — but instead of partying or studying, they will be walking continuously, raising money with every step.

Yale’s third annual Relay for Life — which has nearly 1,000 registered participants — will last 18 hours, starting at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Payne Whitney Gymnasium. Themed “Marga-relay-ville,” the event will feature performances by Yale a cappella and improv groups, a trivia competition, and a burger-eating contest, in addition to keynote speeches by notable cancer activists. Although organizers said they faced numerous challenges in putting on an event of this size and scope, they said the wide appeal of Relay for Life across campus, New Haven and the nation as a whole will help to make it a successful event.

Student coordinators make final preparations for this weekend’s Relay for Life fundraiser.
Matt Lucas
Student coordinators make final preparations for this weekend’s Relay for Life fundraiser.

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, who will be emceeing the Relay this year, said that although the administration is “happy to lend a hand” to the Relay’s organizers, it is largely a student endeavor.

“This is an event planned by students,” he said. “They are the ones who invite administrators, such as myself, to help with kick-off speeches and the like.”

Because a large portion of the Yale and New Haven communities takes part in RFL — organizers estimated that approximately 900 participants have already registered, and they expect an additional 500 people to show up to Saturday’s events — a great deal of planning is required to coordinate all of the “moving parts,” RFL Co-Chair Carolyn Sussman ’07 said.

“We start planning the event actually at the beginning of the school year and it’s just literally a constant effort from September until now — anything from getting the [cancer] survivors from the local community to attend the event to getting local businesses to donate to the raffle to getting the teams to sign up,” Sussman said.

Relays are occurring at an increasing number of campuses across the country, sponsored by each university’s chapter of Colleges Against Cancer, a subset of the American Cancer Society. Yale RFL co-chair David Mixter ’08 said that although Yale’s Relay is fairly new — the first Relay at the University took place in the spring of 2005 — it is one of just 20 college Relays around the country.

“[The American Cancer Society] hasn’t really been pushing college Relays until fairly recently — they were originally community-based events,” Mixter said.

Although RFL is hosted by the University and organized and planned by Yale students, organizers stressed that they endeavor to bring the entire community into the fold. One of the focal points of that effort is recruiting local restaurants and businesses to donate enough food to feed the hundreds of participants for the full 18-hour time span, Sussman said.

“We try to make sure everything at the event is free,” she said.

Additionally, RFL organizers obtained support from Tyco Printing & Copying so that all the signs were printed for free.

Tyco manager Don Scoopo said his business often receives requests for donations to charity events, so it has to “pick and choose” which events it does sponsor. Relay made the cut because, among other reasons, Tyco has historically had a good relationship with Yale athletics, Scoopo said.

“We have a few people here who either their families or them personally have been touched by cancer,” Scoopo said.

Despite the fact that the Yale Relay is a relatively new tradition on campus, the event has quickly grown popular with students. The 2006 Yale Relay was the fifth-largest college Relay event in the nation and second in the country in per-capita participation. Nationwide, millions of people participate, and Relays are held globally as well. Organizers estimated that participation in the relay will go up about 10 percent this year, from about 800 individuals constituting 80 teams last year to 900 registered participants making up 90 teams this year.

RFL co-chair Stacey Leondis ’07 said improving upon the previous year’s Relay is a continuing focus for organizers.

“We always want the event to be bigger than the year before, kind of matching what we did last year and always finding ways to expand upon what we did last year,” she said.

RFL co-chair Stuart Prenner ’07 attributed Relay’s wide and growing appeal to its unique structure, which encourages participants to sign up in teams that raise money together. Yale teams registered for this weekend’s event include residential colleges, varsity sports teams and fraternities, as well as more casual groups, such as former residents of the Saybrook College 12-pack party suite.

“In essence, this is a community event,” Prenner said. “It’s creating an event that so many people can relate to on a personal level and is able to bring a lot of people together.”

Additionally, Prenner said, Relay’s wide popularity stems from the fact that many people encounter cancer in one form or another.

“Unfortunately, cancer has become an issue that everyone has to deal with,” he said. “Everyone has either been touched by cancer directly or knows someone who has cancer. People have become really passionate about doing something about this and trying to find a cure.”

While coordinators are working to expand participation, they are also focusing on keeping each year’s Relay fresh and different from its predecessors. This year, for example, the inaugural Saltzman Cup — named after David Saltzman ’89, who died of cancer in 1990 — will be awarded to the residential college whose members raise the most money for the Relay. In addition, the opening ceremony will feature two keynote speakers, CNN anchor Paula Zahn and former professional football player Howard Cross. Zahn has been recognized for her work in cancer prevention and is a member of the Yale Cancer Center Board.

Sussman said Zahn will direct attendees’ attention to the international nature of Relay For Life.

“[Zahn will] kind of remind people that we’re not just participating in this one event in this one city, in this one state — there are Relay events all around the world,” she said. “This is part of such a wider fight against cancer.”

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