Novato Relay for Life chairperson Kandi Blomquist is so excited that she barely stops to take a breath when asked why it's an important event:
“We want everyone to come out to see what it is ... it’s so inspirational and so much fun ... people are fundraising with carnival games, face-painting, a dunk tank from the fire department, a big jumpy obstacle course ... the Boys Scouts run games for kids the whole day ... there are massage therapists under canopies raising money all day ... bands playing all day ...”
Each year, Relay For Life, the signature fundraising event of the American Cancer Society and global phenomenon, is held in 5,000 communities all over the United States with additional participation of communities within 19 countries across the world, and this weekend it’s Novato’s turn.
Beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday, the local version starts with the colorful opening ceremonies including the Survivor Lap — where caregivers are also acknowledged and appreciated — and lasts until after the Boy Scouts' Pancake Breakfast and closing ceremonies 24 hours later. The atmosophere at San Jose Middle School's track will be devoted to celebrating the lives of people who have battled cancer and survived, honoring those who have passed away and fighting against the disease by raising research funds.
Blomquist, a professional lighting designer and longtime Novato resident, became involved with Relay in 2004 when she was asked to design a theme for a team campsite. Participants are organized into teams with a maximum of 15 people; each team has its own campsite where they can hang out for the 24-hour period as someone from each team circles the track for 24 hours straight tag-team style).
“I was sort of blown away,” Blomquist says, remembering her first Relay. “Seeing all those survivors all walking together was so beautiful and yet so hard. I met a man — a cancer survivor — from Team Shalom from the synagogue in San Rafael, who was out there to show his son that he was strong. ... I didn’t want to go away. I was supposed to be there for a couple of hours, but I ended up staying the whole day and brought coffee and hot chocolate the next morning.”
Blomquist became a team captain for five years as well as the online registration chair before beginning a two-year post as event chair for Novato. In addition to the annual Relay for Life, Blomquist organized Bark for Life (which raised more than $5,000) and the Mini-Relay for Life at area schools.
“We had six people on the committee a few years ago, last year we had 12 and this year I have 24,” Blomquist says explaining the exponential growth in the all-volunteer effort. This year 73 Novato teams representing almost 500 people are participating.
Back in August 2009, through her church, longtime Novato resident Karen Lynch participated in Relay for Life. A couple months later she found a lump in her breast that turned out to be triple negative cancer, a fast-growing, aggressive cancer that did not show up on any mammogram. The lithe former San Francisco police officer in her early 50s is now Relay for Life team captain.
“I don’t know if I would be alive today if it wasn’t for the research the American Cancer Society has funded over the years,” Lynch says. “I never felt 'Why me?' I always felt, 'Why not me?' as I’ve heard other women say."
Lynch’s campsite theme is ‘Summer of Love’ to reflect how far cancer treatment has progressed over the last four decades.
“I was a kid during the Summer of Love, and at that time if you had cancer you probably didn’t survive. I also wanted to make a mess of tie-dye T-shirts,” she adds with a laugh.
(Those lovingly tie-dyed T-shirts will be for sale in the carnival atmosphere of Saturday’s Relay for Life.)
The mother of three says her ambition is for the next generation not to have to deal with cancer.
“I love how the money goes toward further research,” she says.
Highlights of Relay for Life include the hilarious men-only bra-decorating contest and women-only frozen-bra-wearing contest on Saturday afternoon. After dark, lighting is provided only by candles lit inside bags filled with sand, the Luminaria Ceremony. This inspirational setting is a time and place to honor people who have been touched by cancer and to remember loved ones lost to the disease. Each luminaria bears the name of a person touched by cancer, and participants often walk the lap in silence.
"It's absolutely breath-taking," Blomquist says.
Speaking of breath, bring your own mat and join this writer as I teach a free Yoga for Life class from 7:30-8:30 a.m. Sunday morning.