MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ - It was an unfamiliar place, but it had a familiar feel to it; the hope, the passion, the desire to find a cure. It was all still there.
The Relay for Life of Summit, Berkeley Heights, New Providence, Mountainside, and Springfield kicked off the night of June 6 at the Loop Playground in the Watchung Reservation, a new home for the event after spending eight years at Governor Livingston High School.
The new location officially put Relay in Mountainside, and Mountainside mayor Paul Mirabelli wasted no time welcoming everyone to the event during the Opening Ceremony. He expressed his excitement to be able to host Relay, and spoke about how the loss of Mountainside Police Chief Rich Osieja from cancer this year touched the entire community.
“It’s not a real Relay until you cry,” said Linda Weber, a tri-chair of the event after Mirabelli was done speaking. And the tears were flowing early, thanks to a powerful speech by Joe Rizzolo, a recount of his battle with brain cancer nine years ago.
Relay this year was all about butterflies, and the transformation that they face, much like the transformation a cancer patient faces. Tri-chair Patti Broccoli explained that like a butterfly, a patient doesn’t transform because they want to, but because they have to. The ceremony concluded with a reading of “On the Wings of Hope” and butterflies were released into the sky.
After the Opening Ceremony was the traditional Survivor Lap, followed by the Caregiver Lap before everyone was invited to join in and walk the track. The track was then occupied throughout the event, to signify that cancer never sleeps.
“Tent City” was alive all night, with 100 teams made up of 821 participants hanging out at their campsites and socializing amongst each other. For the first time, Relay was able to schedule events all throughout the night. Movies, music, games and activities went on all night long to keep campers entertained.
“People really like this location and like the fact that we have more space,” Weber said, “and everybody’s excited that we can program overnight.”
The most powerful moment of the night was the Luminaria Ceremony, when Stefani Healey told the story of her daughter Brooke, who passed away from brain cancer in September of 2013 at the age of five. Standing with her husband Steve, she told the captivated crowd about Brooke’s radiant smile and caring heart. She told of how they have raised over two million dollars for the Brooke Healey Foundation, set up in Brooke’s memory to build awareness and raise funds for research in her specific type of brain cancer (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma).
Olivia Haddad sang an incredible rendition of “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera, and everyone took a silent lap around the track to remember those who have lost their fight to cancer. As described by the third chair, James Finley, “each [luminaria] represents a life, and each flickering light has a story to tell.”
Immediately following the silent lap, everyone headed back to the stage area for the Fight Back ceremony. The highlight of the ceremony was when Weber received the Spirit of Relay Award, which was presented to her by Deirdre McGuinness, the former American Cancer Society partner for the Relay for Life of Berkeley Heights. The award was given to Weber to honor her commitment to Relay and the ACS throughout the years.
“Deirdre and I have a very special bond, and to get the award from her was very, very touching,” Weber said. “Because of her and a lot of other people at the American Cancer Society…I will always work with the American Cancer Society. I was very humbled and honored to get the award tonight.”
With the sun rising in the background, Relay came to a close at 6 a.m. on Sunday, ending with the much-anticipated total reveal. The grand total for this year was $202,767 and that number will continue to climb until the fundraising window closes on August 31st.
And even though Relay is over for 2015, it's supporter know that it will never truly be over until they “finish the fight.”
To make a donation to Relay for Life, or for more information, visit www.relayforlife.org/berkeleyheightsnj