Twenty- six years ago, when Mike Neal first interviewed for a new position with the American Cancer Society, he kept hearing mention of something called Relay For Life.
“It was new, and it was exciting,” said Neal. “People were telling me you’d go and stay overnight at a high school track. I thought, ‘That sounds like the strangest idea.’”
Despite his reservations, Neal and his family created a team and headed to their closest Relay For Life in Moon Township, Pennsylvania. His team also brought along a putt-putt golf game, hoping that a sunny day would allow event goers to stop by their tent and try out the game for a chance to win prizes.
Unfortunately, the weather had different plans. Gusts of winds and rain would blow down tents, and event participants would continually have to put them back up.
During that day, two young blond children kept visiting Mike’s tent, hoping to play the putt-putt game between rain downpours.
As the night went on, the rain did not let up. Mike walked laps around the track for his team, hoping to be relieved around 2 A.M. But when he saw that the rest of his family was sleeping soundly, he kept walking.
He eventually took up stride alongside a young man, who was also braving the dark and cold.
“We started talking, and he said he was from a town in Virginia that was about 5 hours away,” Neal recalled. “I asked him why he’d decided to come all the way here for this Relay For Life.”
Neal soon learned that the man had lost his wife to cancer earlier that year. Those blond boys who had been playing the putt-putt game, the man said, were his two sons.
“He said that when he heard there was going to be a Relay For Life in his wife’s hometown, at the high school she attended, he knew he had to come,” said Neal, who now serves as Chief of Organizational Advancement at the American Cancer Society. “He said he needed to be able to do something in memory of her fight against cancer.”
It was at that moment, Neal said, that he understood what Relay For Life was about. He stopped complaining about the rain, and he continued to walk for the rest of the night.
“That was my introduction to what Relay For Life has done for so many people.”
The First Relay
What would later become the global movement that is Relay For Life, one that has raised billions of dollars and touched millions of lives, started simply: with one man and a dream.
In the early 1980s, Dr. Gordy Klatt, a colorectal surgeon in Tacoma, Washington, was brainstorming new ways to raise funds for the American Cancer Society and help further the organization’s mission. Dr. Klatt was already a volunteer and held a leadership position on the local board for several years. He needed an idea that would be attention-grabbing.
That’s when it came to him. What if he could leverage something he loved – running marathons – to raise money and bring awareness to help stop the endless pain, suffering and loss due to cancer?
The idea started coming together. Dr. Klatt would spend 24 hours running around a track at Baker Field at the University of Puget Sound in north Tacoma. Donors could pledge $25 to spend a half-hour walking or running with Gordy on the track. This grueling feat would symbolize the energy and effort it takes to endure a cancer diagnosis. He spent the next year training for his day-long mission.
On the day of the event, roughly 300 people came out to cheer him on. Some patients, some friends, even his father. It wasn’t easy – at points, Gordy had to refuel with chicken soup after becoming hypothermic, and he began walking at the 18-hour mark. But when the day came to a close, Gordy had made it 83 miles.
He’d also raised $27,000 for the American Cancer Society.
During his 24 hours of running, Dr. Klatt had plenty of time to think. And during his many laps, he pondered ways to get others involved in his new and novel idea. He also heard from his many cancer patients, who told him what an inspiration the event had been. What if more people participated? How much money could a larger group of runners raise for cancer research? What could a 24-hour team relay event look like?
“That was Gordy’s comment, that there was something special happening there,” recalls Brian Marlow, CFA, a longtime Relay volunteer and current Chair of the American Cancer Society, Inc. Board of Directors. “It was something special they couldn’t really describe. It was the catalyst for them saying, ‘Let’s do this again.’”
What followed was the start of not just an event that would become a blueprint for fundraising, but a globally-recognized brand.
The Movement Begins
One person who joined Gordy on that May evening in 1985 was Pat Flynn. Flynn, an employee of Tacoma Public Schools who transitioned to the city of Tacoma’s communications office. She had heard about Dr. Klatt’s 24-hour event and even pledged $10 to the cause.
Flynn was captivated by the spirit of what Gordy had achieved. She even had a hand in garnering early publicity for the event, having reached out to the Tacoma News Tribune to tell them of the effort taking place at Baker Field. “I just felt it was something special,” Flynn had said previously.
After the 24-hour fundraiser had ended, someone mentioned Flynn’s name to Dr. Klatt. He shared his ideas, and the two discussed what a team relay run and walk the following year could look like.
Dr. Klatt also reached out to his network – family, friends, associates. They came up with a plan to raise funds and make the following year even more impactful. The next year, 19 teams were part of the first Relay For Life event at the historic Stadium Bowl and raised $33,000.
In the coming years, communities across the country started hearing about Relay For Life events. Dr. Klatt would take time off from his medical practice to travel nationwide, telling the story of his 24-Hour Run Against Cancer. Later, videos were prepared by Virginia television news anchor, Terry Zahn, to convey just how special these Relay For Life events were.
Eventually, the American Cancer Society’s National Home Office learned of these fundraisers, and in 1992, Relay For Life became the American Cancer Society’s signature event.
A Global Movement
Since 1985, Relay For Life has raised $6.8 billion to help save lives from cancer. Today, events are held worldwide across 31 countries. Dollars raised each year by more than 250,000 Relay participants help support the American Cancer Society’s mission in countless ways – funding and conducting breakthrough research, providing education and advocating for the needs of cancer patients and their families, and providing essential services throughout their cancer journey.
“There’s such a positive, optimistic energy that comes from these events,” Marlow said. “You laugh, you cry, you feel every emotion in between. It’s a 24-hour roller coaster. But you connect with people in such a strong way. It really brings the community together.”
Relay For Life was also the starting point for the American Cancer Society’s third Cancer Prevention Study, CPS-3. This geographically and racially/ethnically diverse cohort of 300,000 participants who were cancer free when they enrolled in the trial from 2006 to 2013 are continuing to be studied today. Participants were enrolled largely from more than 800 Relay For Life events.
Relay For Life also set the groundwork for the Celebration On The Hill, held in 2002 and again in 2006 in Washington, D.C., to demonstrate the voting power and reach of cancer survivors.
“We put a Relay For Life city in place on the lawn of the Capitol,” Neal said. “It was the first time we really decided that we could be an 800-pound gorilla when it comes to advocacy. That came from Relay. It put us on the map.”
For The Community, By The Community
Just as it was when Dr. Klatt took those first laps, the American Cancer Society Relay For Life continues to be so much more than just a walk. Relay For Life brings together supporters from around the world who embody the American Cancer Society mission to end cancer as we know it, for everyone. These events also speak to every aspect of volunteer communities, from young students raising money for events on college campuses to Bark For Life – an event that honors the care-giving qualities of our canine “Best Friends.”
“We obviously have people show up on the day of the events and move on, but what makes Relay different is we have a huge portion of people who are doing fundraising every day” said Bryan Sherwood, National Senior Director of Relay For Life.
Relay For Life continues to be community-based and volunteer-driven. Communities use their creativity to raise money to support the American Cancer Society and honor survivors and caregivers as well as remember those we’ve lost to the disease.
From posting various out-of-the-box fundraising ideas to social media to serving on event leadership committees, Relay For Life is powered by highly-committed volunteers.
“You look at a Facebook page of someone who drinks the purple Kool-Aid, and you’ll see something about Relay For Life every day,” Sherwood said. “It’s so important to them and their lives.”
More Than an Event
For Sherwood, who attended his first Relay For Life event when he was in junior high, it was the attention-grabbing activations that initially piqued his interest in Relay For Life.
“I distinctly remember I took a nap, and I woke up around 2 a.m., and I look around and I see the stage. There was music, and what had woken me up was a Zumba class happening at 2 a.m.” Sherwood said. “It’s a memory that just sticks with me. That’s what made me realize I want to do this. This is fun. It’s a great event and a great cause.”
While the music and entertainment are enticing for new volunteers or event attendees, it’s something more that keeps devoted volunteers coming back each year.
“It’s that experience of being with your community and being united in a common goal. And it’s the people. I built a Relay family starting in my very first year,” Sherwood said. “That’s what keeps people invested, it’s the relationships they build with others.”
That holds true for Suzy Lawrence, who joined her first Relay For Life more than 25 years ago.
“I got a flyer in our office mail about two weeks before the event. I saw that if I spent the night, I could get a free t-shirt,” she said.
For Lawrence, her involvement with the cause was personal.
“I lost both my parents to cancer. My mom was 37, and my dad was 54,” she said. “I had always donated to ACS since becoming an adult, but I had never done anything else with ACS.”
Lawrence got to work. She joined a team, managed a bake sale, and later sourced donations from friends and family, raising a total of $2,000. On the day of the event, she headed to the stadium in Roanoke and saw that Relay For Life had something for everyone: a band, food, even dunking booths.
“I was hooked,” Lawrence said. “But I had no idea I was hooked for life.”
More than two decades years later, Lawrence is still an active volunteer and serves as the 2023 Nationwide Relay For Life Co-Lead.
“At first, it was the fun of it,” she said of her early involvement with Relay For Life. “As I got further into volunteering, I realized, ‘I can do something. This is how I am going to fight back.’”
Adapting to the Times
Although each of the roughly 1,600 worldwide Relay For Life events embrace the uniqueness of their home community, every event has the same four signature elements: a celebration of cancer survivors, a celebration of caregivers, a luminaria ceremony to honor and remember loved ones, and the opportunity to fight back against cancer.
“Other than that, we want people to reimagine what Relay is and what their community could be,” Lawrence said.
Along with the changes the event has seen over the decades, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Relay For Life to adapt once again.
“The fundraising that happened when we were not able to have any physical Relay For Life events was incredible,” Sherwood said. “So many fundraising events were virtual. They continued to look for fundraising events – they just had to look for new ideas and manage risks for COVID.”
Those creative ideas included drive-through luminaria ceremonies, grab-and-go survivor dinners and even outdoor planning meetings in parking lots, Lawrence recalled.
“We were still able to stay connected,” Sherwood added. “It shows the power not just of Relay For Life as an event, but as a movement. It truly is a family and an experience that’s not just tied to one day.”
A Lasting Legacy
After a lifetime of service, Dr. Klatt passed away in 2014. But his legacy continues to live on.
“Their spirit has never been lost,” Neal said. “Today, we are standing on the shoulders of people like Gordy, of Reuel Johnson, of Pat Flynn. The people who were part of the early days still Relay with us.”
Dr. Klatt was the first person to be inducted in the Relay For Life Hall of Fame in 1997. His fellow Relay For Life champion, Pat Flynn, received the same honor the following year. Flynn continued to be a strong supporter of the global event she helped create until her passing in 2018.
“The reason Relay grew and became the movement it really is today and has been for almost 40 years is because Pat was open to Relay evolving, to make it better and different and really community-focused,” Sherwood said. “Whatever needed to be done to make Relay raise more money for ACS, she was game for. From the first year to her last, she was always willing to do that.”
“Relay is strong and still going strong,” Neal added. “The core of Relay For Life continues to live on and we’re energized about the future.”
For Lawrence, a Relayer who lost both of her parents to cancer, Relay For Life has given her more than just an opportunity to volunteer.
“It gave me my voice to fight back. I never had that outlet. It’s made my life so much more full,” she said. “To me Relay is a gift, and I want other people to have that experience, so it’s very important for me to keep it relevant and alive.”