Last May, 15-year-old Zack Latteri, a student at Pascack Valley High School (PVHS) in Hillsdale, made a victory lap around the school’s track. Hundreds of fellow students and other admiring onlookers cheered him on. In a wheelchair and noticeably frail, Zack, who’d been battling blood cancer since the age of 10, nevertheless led a throng of other cancer survivors in proud defiance of the disease and celebration of the efforts of the Relay For Life of Pascack Valley.
Zack lost his personal battle with cancer shortly after. He won’t physically be there for this year’s event. But Zack’s spirit continues to thrive in the efforts and commitment of all the Relay participants who will be there for him and thousands like him.
The American Cancer Society Relay For Life is an overnight “camp-out” community celebration where individuals and teams picnic, dance, play games, cheer each other on and take relay-style turns walking around a track to raise funds to fight cancer.
Started in 1985, Relay For Life began in Tacoma, Washington, as a single determined man, Dr. Gordy Klatt, circled around a track for 24 hours. He raised $27,000; more importantly, he raised the consciousness and commitment of a community. The effort spread from person to person, survivor to survivor, caregiver to caregiver, community to community. The result: It’s now a worldwide force where people in more than 5,200 communities and more than 25 countries form a diverse kaleidoscope of faces and stories with one common goal—helping those coping with cancer to stay well and get well by fighting this horrible disease and finding cures.
Relay For Life of Pascack Valley (RFLPV) is one of the largest fundraising groups in the Northeast region, according to Dominique Bournot, 2016 Team Development co-chair. It presently consists of nine towns—Emerson, Hillsdale, Montvale, Old Tappan, Park Ridge, River Vale, Washington Township, Westwood and Woodcliff Lake. Volunteers sign up to raise money year-round through fundraisers—ranging from garage sales to neighborhood block parties—that culminate in an overnight celebration. Last year, the event was held in PVHS and raised nearly $170,000 with 1,395 participants, 51 teams and 53 cancer survivors in attendance. This year’s event, which officially kicked off in January, promises to be even bigger and better.
“At this time, we are over double our funds raised and teams, from the same time last year,” notes River Vale resident Susan Vaccaro, who along with Hillsdale resident Marsha Demarest, is the 2016 Event co-chair of the 29-member RFLPV Committee. (Terrie O’Connor, of Terrie O’Connor Realtors, is the honorary chair.) This year’s goals are to raise $200,000 and have 80 teams, 1,500 participants and 63 cancer survivors, according to Relay organizers.
“We’re confident we’ll surpass those numbers,” notes Bournot.
“This will be the biggest Relay ever!” adds Demarest.
This year’s event will be held at Westwood Regional Jr./Sr. High School on Saturday, May 14, 4p.m. to Sunday, May 15, 7a.m. The theme is “Coloring Outside the Lines for a Cure.” Event highlights will consist of the opening ceremony at 6:30pm, followed by a Survivors lap, during which cancer survivors take the first lap around the track to celebrate their victory over cancer. A Caregiver’s lap will follow to honor those who selflessly give their time, love and support. The Luminaria Ceremony—an emotion-charged silent gathering where thousands of Luminaria lights illuminate the night—will begin at around 10pm. Candles will be lit inside of personalized bags and placed around the Relay track as glowing tributes to survivors or those who have passed from cancer.
“Nothing is more heart-warming than the silence of the Luminaria Ceremony, knowing you are not alone, that every person there is trying to find a cure, that every person there has felt the aching pain that sits in your heart,” says PVHS student Chloe Witt, who will be marking her eighth Relay event this year.
“I do this to find a cure for cancer and to cherish the lives of the survivors, the sick and the ones who have passed,” continues Chloe, who explains her initial inspiration to get involved was a close family friend who was diagnosed with brain cancer when she was five, but is still beating the disease now at 14 years old.
“It is an honor to work with so many passionate people,” says Vaccaro. “It is great to work with students who have been touched by cancer. Their enthusiasm, compassion and excitement about Relay spur you on to do more every year; to make Relay even better, and although cancer is serious, to make the event fun and enjoy the journey leading up to it with your friends while doing good for others.”
“There are definitely sad moments, but it’s also fun, festive, loud and crazy, and really inspirational,” agrees PV Theatre Team Co-captain Ariana Aguero, one of the hundreds of teen volunteers who will be taking part in this year’s Relay, which will include karaoke, themed Relay laps, dancing, yoga, Zumba classes and much more.
Bournot, who began participating in Relay in 2010, says, “Now I can’t imagine not being a part of it. For my family—and for many other families—Relay has become a fabric of family history,” she notes, explaining that her two sons, Alex and Tristan, wouldn’t think of missing a Relay even though they’ve both now moved on to college.
“I perfectly understand that we all have busy lives, but whether you get involved for one day or for one year, the thing is to come out and participate,” says Survivor Co-chair Lisa Iannaccone-Scher. “You’ll be glad you did. There’s a great sense of camaraderie and support. It’s wonderful to know you’re part of something bigger; that what you’re doing makes a difference.”
“I want a world with more birthdays,” says Demarest, who lost her mom, dad and sister to cancer. “It is a wonderful nine-town community event and a great way of giving back to the community.”
“Form a team, ask your friends, relatives and colleagues to join you. Or, become a sponsor, which has varying benefits. We also need donations of items, such as food. Our biggest food donor is Inserra ShopRite, which for the past four years has been generously donating the bulk of the food that we’ve been selling. They are wonderful to work with, and we could use more collaborators like them,” says Vaccaro.
Another key to the Relay’s ongoing growth and success is to get the younger generation committed to the cause, emphasizes Kerry Witt, Team Development co-chair. “If you get them involved at an early age, they’ll stick with it and go on to do things in college and beyond. It’s amazing to see them so passionate about Relay. It motivates me to give back and do whatever I can when I see amazing human beings like Zack Latteri, who even though he knew he wasn’t going to be around, to the day he died, he was planning for Relay.”
“They learn so much and gain so many important skills, and their contributions really are invaluable. I see them out in the cold, staying up all night and working so hard, and I’m so proud and inspired,” says Bournot, explaining that team members take turns being on the track as team representatives must be on the track at all times, signifying that “cancer never sleeps, so we shouldn’t either in our fight to beat it.”
“The more I help and do, it’s like I’m trying to outrun cancer and beat it for myself and others. If it’s helped one person, comforted one person, it’s meant so much to me,” says Jodi Stellaci, Survivor Committee co-chair. Stellaci, who has been cancer-free for ten years, knows from first-hand experience just how devastating a cancer diagnosis can be. “You hear the word cancer and you’re overwhelmed. But as crazy and terrifying as it is, there’s hope. After people get over the shock, there’s a place to get hope and help. People I’ve met through Relay have been my outlet.”
Survivors are invited to participate as much or as little as they want in Relay, Stellaci notes, adding that attending survivors are given a medal recognizing how long they’ve been cancer free, are gifted care packages, and get to meet other cancer survivors and feel celebrated, understood and supported. Funds raised from Relay go towards helping the American Cancer Society provide free support services, products like wigs, transportation to and from treatment visits, stays at places like Hope Lodge, and so much more (see sidebar).
Just as important are the enduring emotional connections. For instance, even after Zack’s passing, his mom, Sharon Latteri, and his siblings remain active in Relay. “Not only would this have made Zack happy—he lived and breathed for Relay because it gave him purpose and made him feel important—but it’s such a great source of community-building. I’ve made friends who have been and continue to be there for us. It’s for a worthy cause, but it’s also uplifting, inspirational and so much fun to be a part of! If you’ve never been, come and see, and you’ll be all in!”
Nayda Rondon, editor of BC THE MAG, is a Bergen County resident, who writes frequently about lifestyle topics.
Where your money goes
With the support of volunteers and fundraisers, the American Cancer Society (ACS) is putting your money where it matters. In our area, here are some of the ways community support is helping to make a difference:
Research: For more than 65 years, ACS has been finding answers that save lives—from changes in lifestyle to new approaches in therapies to improving cancer patients’ quality of life. No single nongovernmental, not-for-profit organization in the US has invested more to find the causes and cures of cancer.
Hope Lodge®: Where to stay and how to afford accommodations are immediate concerns for cancer patients who must travel away from home for the best treatment. ACS Hope Lodge facilities provide free and comfortable places for patients and caregivers to stay, so they can focus on recovery.
Road To Recovery®: Cancer patients frequently cite transportation to and from treatment as a critical need. The ACS Road To Recovery program matches cancer patients with specially trained volunteer drivers.
Look Good…Feel Better®: This free service teaches women battling cancer beauty techniques to help them improve their appearance and self-image during chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Volunteer beauty professionals demonstrate makeup techniques, nail care, skin care and options related to hair loss.
Reach To Recovery®: This support program matches specially trained breast cancer survivors with people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and want to speak with someone who has been there. These dedicated volunteers offer understanding, support and hope.