– They were not the most dangerous odds many of the people attending the Garner Relay for Life have ever faced, but thunderstorms presented enough risk for Relay to Life to fold its hand at Lake Benson Park last weekend.
Organizers announced the cancellation about 20 minutes after the time scheduled for opening ceremony of the cancer research benefit, leaving fundraising teams to take down tents and booths already set up amid occasional waves of driving rain and at one point, hail.
The American Cancer Society, which has liability for the event as the umbrella organization, made the decision to pull the plug. The rain largely had dissipated by the time most of the booths had been taken down. Some patches of clear skies even lit up as unused luminaries wrapped in Ziplock bags lining the walking track painted on the Lake Benson Park grass collected near an organizers station.
“There’s nothing you can do to control it. It is what it is,” said Jill Cottengim, a cancer survivor who has co-chaired the event each of the 16 years it’s been in Garner. “It’s very disappointing, but people’s safety is more important.”
She said the ACS said another front was moving in that threatened the event, and though it cleared, Cottengim said: “if you don’t cancel it, then more stuff comes through; if you do cancel it, it might clear up.” And she also said the normal crowds would not have likely materialized after the rain-soaked evening. Cottengim vowed that there would be a replacement event of some sort, but said details would have to be worked out next week.
Garner’s Relay for Life had never experienced more than a drizzle. It raised $170,000 last year, and volunteers raised $2 million since it started.
The rain and resulting soggy ground – Chris Woodall ended up spattered with mud from head-to-toe while helping push a stuck pickup truck – would have made a mess of much of the event. But most of the vendors packing up under (at least temporarily) clearing skies recognized and understood the bigger issue: the frequent lightning in the area.
“I don’t mind the rain but lightning scares me,” said Pam Thompson, team captain of the BBQ-serving team Pigging out for Cancer.
Thompson, a breast cancer survivor with a sister who beat cervical cancer 42 years ago before many modern advances raised survival chances, said the group did sell some food and receive donations. But like many teams it was also giving away much of it as well as the team packed up.
“I do think safety is the most important thing right now but we are still disappointed,” said Ashley Rauch, who beat oral cancer and started a team.
Rauch said though they didn’t raise as much without a booth last year, her team raised $4,000-$5,000 the previous two. This time they added food for the first time, spending about $400 and selling little. Her husband Jamie joked that the family would be eating sausage for about three years.
‘Hard to make that call’
Though the teams had made a concerted effort to set up in bad weather while hoping it would clear for the event planned to last all night and into the morning, Mary Lahr Cain of Earnest Myatt Presbyterian’s team felt worse for the organizers.
“They did a lot more work than we did,” Cain said. “I’m sure it was really hard to make that call.”
Before the cancellation, Garnerite Paul Sims ventured through the rain toward a tent for shelter, his umbrella battling him and inverting briefly in the wind.
“We decided we’d come out here even if it did rain. Now I’m thinking maybe we should go home,” Sims said after getting to the tent, not long after a loud thunder clap.
He said his daughter bailed not far from the parking lot during an earlier part of the storm. And while those working booths braved the worst of the storm, the droves usually associated with the event never materialized.
“I was at last year. At this time it was swamped (with people),” Patrick Rorie said while purchasing a sausage from the Rauch booth as cleanup began.
Some came from a long way. Garner native Jeffrey Maddrey lives in Virginia Beach now that he’s retired after 22 years in the Navy. His parents still live in Garner and each survived cancer after early detection. His sister was declared cancer free about two years ago, but six months later it was back.
“I try to make it down every year for this,” he said.
But various thwarted efforts aside, Cottengim noted that even before the event, $116,000 had been raised by Garner Relay teams. Meanwhile fundraisers well-versed in dealing with adversity took it largely it in stride.
“The struggle of a little rain is nothing compared to the struggle with cancer,” Cain said.