Smithfield Herald

‘Hope’ comes to Smithfield

Kayaks wait for the next day of the Hope Floats journey down the Neuse River.
Kayaks wait for the next day of the Hope Floats journey down the Neuse River.

Some groups sell barbecue plates to raise money for cancer research; this group kayaks the Neuse River.

On April 5, Hope Floats camped in Smithfield, the first overnight stop on an eight-day, 200-mile paddle down the Neuse River from Raleigh to the coast. Now in its third year, the group paddles the Neuse annually to raise money for the American Cancer Society. This year’s goal is $30,000.

“We’re really excited because we really didn’t think it would get this big in the first three years,” said Chris Tart, who captains the flotilla.

At each overnight stop, the group of about 20 kayakers hold an event. In Smithfield, Hope Floats staged a concert and crafts fair on the Town Commons. The kayakers pitched their tents along the riverbank and ate dinner while listening to country music.

Tart launched Hope Floats with his wife, Kim. After battling thyroid cancer, she began paddling to exercise and get her strength back. That evolved into the fundraiser, and now the kayakers are a second family.

Each night, the group reads the names of people who are battling cancer or lost their battle.

“It’s hard,” said Bob Brown, 68, of Cary, who has paddled all three years. “The list is getting bigger and bigger and of people we know.”

The trip, he added, is meaningful for all of the paddlers because all know someone who has had cancer.

David Bartlett, 51, of Fayetteville has beaten Hodgkin’s lymphoma twice now. “I’m a cancer survivor, so I kind of feel like I’m continuing the fight,” he said of the kayaking trip. “It feels good to be doing something.”

Bartlett said the trip is like an annual family reunion. “It’s just a good time because it’s a great group out here,” he said.

The event in Smithfield drew a handful of vendors who made donations to the American Cancer Society to be able to set up shop on the Town Commons. Cupcakes, scented candles, jewelry and artwork lined the path leading to the Neuse Riverwalk.

Heather Oakley, 27, of Selma sells Scentsy products, including no-wick candles. Her grandmother has cancer, so when she heard about the event, she wanted to join in. “It’s close to home, so it was a great event,” she said. “It’s just great to see how many people come out and support and feel the same way I do about cancer.”

As the day wound down, three of the kayakers sat on a bench overlooking the Neuse, eating dinner and trading stories.

Mary Grace McCoy, 45, of Durham said cancer affects everyone. On the river, “you relax and lose your stresses of the day, and it’s also a reflection to think of the people that you love,” she said.

The days on the river can be long and tiring, but McCoy said she knows the others are there to support her. That same support is there when someone battles cancer. “You’re going through a lot, and we’re going through it with you,” she said.

Sara Graham, 51, of Garner agreed. She couldn’t kayak this year because of an emergency appendectomy but came out to support her friends. “We all pull together,” she said. “One day on this river, you’re struggling, you’re fighting for everything, you got to make it through.”