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For the fifth year in a row and from across economic, geographic, and age-related boundaries, hundreds gathered at Culver Academies' multi-purpose building Friday night to fight cancer and help bolster a fund-raising marvel for a small, Midwestern community.
As of early Saturday morning, over $95,000 had been raised for this year's student-organized Relay for Life, and surely numbers will top the hoped-for $100,000 in short order. As in the past, those figures are staggering for one of the few high school-based and organized Relays -- which contribute to the American Cancer Society's ongoing battle against cancer -- in the U.S. Of equal import in the eyes of many was the impact of a community gathered in support of cancer victims and their caregivers, family, and friends.
Two of the featured speakers of the evening exemplified that impact. Though a Bass Lake resident, Don Freese is best known locally for his active roles in Culver's Lions Club and Trinity Lutheran Church.
During the Relay's Fight Back Ceremony, he focused on heroes, referencing late Culver Comm. High School teacher Mike Schwartz, who addressed participants at the same ceremony in 2010 and, said Freese, spoke of "every day as a gift from God.
"He was a respected, accomplished teacher...if he were here tonight, he'd say, 'Don't quit -- keep walking.'"
Freese discussed his mother's surgery in St. Louis in 1953 to rid her of cancer, the earliest of its kind in that city. She lived another 50 years, he noted.
Freese himself successfully battled prostate cancer and was assisted, he explained, by the American Cancer Society. Students in his classes as a substitute teacher, said Freese, ask him if he's having a good day.
"I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and stood erect," Freese responded. "It's a good day."
Freese concluded with the hope that the "C word," cancer, can be eliminated from our collective vocabulary, or replaced with another "C word:" cure.
Surely stealing the hearts of the audience were the featured speakers launching the solemn luminaria ceremony.
Culver Academies wellness director Dana Neer, after noting he was part of the very first Relay for Life after a close friend's brother died of cancer in Pennsylvania, described the difficult journey to his 6-year-old son Grayson's diagnosis with non-Hodgkin lymphoma last year, noting, "My little boy's been a teacher for me (by way of his) spirit and attitude."
Neer was particularly grateful, in the wake of the diagnosis, to the Culver community for "your cards, notes, and phone calls -- not a day goes by that someone doesn't say, 'We're thinking of you or praying for you.'"
Bringing Grayson to the stage, Neer conducted an often-humorous "interview" with his son, which included the youngsterâ€™s assurance he could out-race anyone in his family except his nationally recognized, record-beating runner sister, Waverly.
"Thank you for your cards and prayers," Grayson concluded, ushering in the several minutes of silent walking which followed, as participants placed lighted glow sticks into luminary bags decorated in honor of cancer victims or those battling the disease.
Undoubtedly the best-known speaker of the evening was one of the earliest: Indianapolis Colts running back Donald Brown, who in an interview with the Culver Academies Vedette newspaper and blog, called the Relay, "a great event for a great cause; lives are being saved through such events.
"What I find so impressive about the Culver Relay for Life branch is that it was started by students...This is my first year attending Culver Relay and so far I am very impressed."
Also highlighting the evening was the introduction of cancer-battling Jane Feitz, who was treated to spa and hair "pampering" by Culver representatives of Hello Gorgeous, which surrounds women fighting cancer with care and affection through a makeover, presentation of beauty-related gifts, and a party with family and friends.
Culver-based Michelle's Headquarters has given several area women the Hello Gorgeous treatment, and owner Michelle Allyn and assistant Susan Elizondo joined Feitz onstage along with Hello Gorgeous founder Kim Becker, to enthusiastic applause.
"These ladies made me feel pretty on the outside," Feitz, a Culver Academies employee, told the audience, "And beautiful on the inside."
Hour-by-hour Relay coverage in text and photos by the Culver Vedette staff is available online at thevedette.wordpress.com.