BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Relay for Life of Berkeley Heights went off without a hitch thanks to the hard work of the volunteer committees who worked tirelessly to pull off the last minute change of venue on Saturday, May 13 -- raising in excess of $150,000 for the American Cancer Society.
With a forecast of a Nor'easter strength storm coming through the area, the committee worked fervorously to make this the best event possible within difficult circumstances. Moving the event from the Watchung Reservation in Mountainside to indoors at Gov. Livingston High School.
Although there could have been disappointment from the year long planning of an outdoor event of this magnitude, there was never a sign of distress to the public. The event went on with adaptations and the message of Relay, Hope, and Cure shined on brightly inside.
Relay for Life is a life changing journey to celebrate survivors who have battled cancer, remember the people we have lost and renew the commitment to fight back against the disease and help to end it once and for all, said event co-chair Patti Broccoli.
James Finley, who is in his sixth and final year of co-chairing the event, welcomed the crowd of about 800 participants that filled the gymnasium stands. "Thank you for your support of our fight against cancer," said Finley. He recognized the tireless effort of the event leadership team and his co-chairs Patti Broccoli and Margaret Illis.
Broccoli also recognized the entire leadership team, especially the graduating seniors. She awarded the Eternal Flame awards to Maddie Forrester and Andrew Peritore, who went above and beyond, "They are going to do great things in the world -- and we hope they take all that we taught them to colleges throughout the country and run Relay for Life there to continue the battle, to continue the fight, to pass it on and continue to do great things."
Berkeley Heights Mayor Bob Woodruff and Mountainside Mayor Paul Mirabelli welcomed the crowd to kick off the event. Woodruff congratulated the many young kids participating for making the commitment to Relay. Next, Mirabelli rallied the crowd with his spirited Jersey welcome. He spoke of losing his mother this past year to cancer. He quoted sports announcer Jim Valvano's famous words to "Never give up, keep fighting cancer and we will find a cure."
The Relay for Life of Berkeley Heights joins 5,200 communities around the country and world to finish the fight. "We want to create a world without cancer," said Illis.
Local performers brought an emotion to the room as they performed songs that hit the heart and soul of each relayer. Click on video below of Olivia Hadad, of Berkeley Heights, on piano and vocals.
It has been said over and over again that cancer has no heart; it doesn’t care if it attacks a young child, a parent or a senior who is looking forward to a long and happy retirement. Local cancer survivor Keith Cagan spoke of his "cancer story" and the importance of knowing your family history, talk to relatives, and have the hard conversations.
His story started in 1978 when his father was diagnosed with Thyroid cancer which years later led his family to go through genetic marker testing. Ten family members were tested positive for the marker, said Cagan. "The main point is learn your family history, talk to relatives, have the hard conversations."
Cagan's story doesn't end there, he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma after having a persistent cough.
"We have all lost close friends, family, acquaintances to this horrible disease," said Cagan -- "If you are currently fighting this disease keep fighting. If you are a caregiver, keep supporting. If you are family or a friend of someone going through it, give however you can."
The survivors were called to the arch of purple and white balloons to take their survivor lap to kick off the start relay, followed by caregivers and then the 800 participants filed in and walked side by side inside the halls and gyms of Gov. Livingston High School.
75 teams and 544 participants were registered from Berkeley Heights, Mountainside, New Providence, and Summit raising money by holding fundraising events such as car washes, dine-out events, bake sales, dress-down days, Bingo nights and much more. The fundraising efforts continued throughout the evening with concessions, games, bake sales, candy sales, 50/50 raffle and a basket raffle.
As the lights dimmed and the Luminaria Ceremony began, two Gov. Livingston bagpipers marched the lap playing Amazing Grace which set the tone for the featured speaker Phyllis Seibert, the mother of beloved Gov. Livingston teacher Isadora Seibert, who gave a tearful speech of the pain of losing "Dora." Isadora passed away from a very rare form of liver cancer, fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma, found mostly in, otherwise, healthy young adults.
"Because it is so rare, there is very limited funding for research," said Phyllis Seibert. "I do not know why my daughter had to be one of the 200 that year. I only know that this epidemic of all types of cancer is our modern day plague and must be stopped."
Phyllis described Dora as a shining light of what is good in the world, she was loved by all. "She was a role model throughout her life. Even her passing, she did with grace, courage, and love, in March of 2014, when she was just 25 years old," she said.
"The luminaria ceremony is an example of life itself. The light of each candle, lit for someone we loved, is placed within something else. This is not a coincidence. We, too, can illuminate from inside something else, our very own bodies. You are all shining by being here tonight," said Phyllis.
Luminaria bags lit up the hallways as the crowd gathered behind the balloon arch before taking a silent lap to remember all those who have lost their battle with cancer.
The evening's last message was of "Hope." Laurie Liming, a hometown hero of hope, spoke of her long journey since being diagnosed with stage three metastatic breast cancer.
She spoke of her struggles when her body wanted to give up, "it needed a break," she said. "That break came about 10 weeks ago," said Liming. "I awoke and some of the pain had subsided. After switching medicine, my crippling arthritis had eased and my hands, knees and feet began moving on their own."
It is not easy to lose parts of our bodies to cancer, she said. -- She came to peace with losing her breasts, but became depressed when having a hysterectomy -- and letting cancer decide she was done having children. Becoming depressed, she wanted to find something to do to keep her fighting alive. She joined the Livestrong Program at the Berkeley Heights YMCA, which is a life changer and for Laurie, it "was also lifesaving." "We support one another while exercising at our own level."
Laurie reached her goal by completing the recent Mother's Day 5K to raise money to support the Livestrong Cancer Recovery Program. "No matter how long it takes me, I will finish it," she said.
"Cancer is not something we would have chosen, but since we are the chosen ones, we must wear that badge with honor. We should be proud of our accomplishments and how cancer has changed our priorities.
"My kids call me a warrior and they are right. Our bodies have gone to war, and we know what it means to fight. I ask you to join us as we continue our battle with cancer. We have a responsibility to share our stories and to inspire those around us. We need to look at our loved ones and remind them of what is important. Taking this life we have and living it to the fullest. Nothing is more important than a life filled with health and happiness -- not your job, not your children's grades, not anything else. Pride and joy in each hour of each day. Push yourself to live a healthy life you deserve. Help us beat cancer, help us to find a cure and motivate those around you to contribute to that fight."
Performers for the evening included: Bridget Lynn sang the national anthem, Olivia Hadad and Juliette Reilly performed during Opening Ceremony; Hickory Tree Chorus and Lara Gavagan performed during the Luminaria Ceremony; and DJs Tom and Sandy and musicians Bud Ayer, Mark Weber, Sam Ayre, Luke Weber, Ryan Hernandez, Steve Hess performed throughout the evening.
For more information about Relay for Life, please visit relayforlife.org/berkeleyheights.
Photo Credits: Bobbie Peer - TAPinto Berkeley Heights