Embodying The True Spirit Of Huntington

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Survivors Complete First Lap

Relay For Life showcased Huntington High School students at their finest as a remarkable group of teenagers conceived, planned and executed an event that saw touching and uplifting scenes throughout an incredible 12 hours that played out on the athletic fields.

Ranging from the opening ceremony where hundreds of Huntington High School students sat silently on the track as cancer survivors told the large crowd about their personal battles to fight and live with the insidious disease to the lighting of luminaria that ringed the entire running track to the closing ceremony that saw nearly 500 participants quietly circling the track at daybreak on Sunday at 5:15 a.m. while the sun tried to peek through the clouds for the first time, it was hard not to get choked up.

Reading through the carefully inscribed and beautifully decorated luminaria bags was another emotional experience. They chronicled the personal reasons why participants were “relaying” in often stark terms, calling out to family and friends felled by cancer and expressing their love for them. Many wrote the names of parents and grandparents, siblings and other close associates and the specific form of cancer they had been stricken by.

Students Show Final Fundraising Figure

As the event wrapped up, it was announced that Huntington’s Relay For Life had raised a whopping $128,673.12 for the American Cancer Society’s efforts. Mr. Cohen called it “amazing” and expressed pleasure that the predicted overnight thunderstorms never materialized. “The kids on the committee were so worried and kept trying to plan for the rain that never came,” he said.

“The Relay for Life was one of the most rewarding fundraisers this year,” Huntington High School Principal Carmela Leonardi said. “The staff and I are very proud of all the students who organized the event or participated. Their commitment and care were evident in all the work they put into it. The involvement of community members and especially of the survivors and their families, created a hopeful environment in which everyone felt supported.”

Participants began erecting Tent City. They came with chairs, sleeping bags, games and activities, food and refreshments, books, spare clothes, items to sell to generate proceeds for the cause and whatever comforts they could think of. The tents were decorated and personalized by the 60 participating teams, which counted nearly 600 members among them.

“I am beyond proud of our students and staff for the manner in which they planned and implemented a tremendously successful event,” Mr. Polansky said. “So many families have been affected by cancer in one form another. This weekend’s event participants understand that every effort counts in fighting the dreadful disease.”

An energetic organizing committee met for months to iron out every last detail. Science teacher Joseph Cohen, who serves as the school’s National Honor Society chapter faculty advisor, provided the teenagers with guidance, but otherwise let them take the lead.

“Our Relay committee is just a phenomenal bunch of young people,” Mr. Cohen said. “They were so dedicated, energetic and most of all prepared. They have been planning this event for months. From the survivor’s reception dinner to the raffles to the ceremonies to the entertainment, each detail was meticulously scheduled and followed. The event went as smooth as I could have every imagined. The emotion of the event was felt by all and everyone who participated was extremely respectful and, hopefully, had a great time. The reason why we were there was not lost on anyone as I heard many stories of the cancer battles of loved ones and friends.”

Dozens of alumni returned to their alma mater to join in the event, including 2011 valedictorian Carrie Fante and salutatorian Michelle Byrne and Harvard freshman Alexandra Kiley, among many others. Folks of all ages were on the track at any one time, including many entire families.

“My mind is spinning,” said Joseph Straub after the event. He co-chaired the event with classmates Marie Clifford and Alexandra Martinolich. “It’s still difficult for me to wrap my head around this weekend. During the early planning stages Alex, Marie and I sat down to create goals for the event. Although we settled on a goal of $65,000, my bid for the goal was $100,000. They called me crazy, but there is just something about Huntington; An indescribable passion and sense of community. I knew it could be done. Needless to say, Huntington even surpassed my crazy goal.”

Mr. Straub’s mother, Cathy Straub, spoke at the opening ceremony about her battle with Stage 4 breast cancer. Huntington School Board member Adam Spector also addressed the crowd, describing his ongoing fight with an aggressive form cancer. Several dozen cancer survivors were treated to dinner under a tent pitched on the athletic field prior to the opening ceremony. Later, survivors were asked to walk the first lap around the track and other participants and crowd members cheered them on.

“Walking the survivor lap was one of the most surreal and freeing things I’ve ever done,” junior Molly Prep said. “Standing with that group of people, each of us having fought or are in the midst of fighting, a terrible battle, I couldn’t help but smile. We were alive and though not everyone diagnosed with cancer has the same outcome, we knew that by participating in Relay For Life we were making a difference, and that perhaps one day the number of cancer survivors will outnumber the losses and the cases of cancer will shrink away.”

The huge crowd buoyed organizers. “I am thrilled with the turnout for the event,” Ms. Martinolich said. “I was truly blown away. It was more than I ever could have imagined! I am so happy that with all of our work and the amazing help of Mr. Cohen and American Cancer Society staff partner Alyssa Knudsen, we were able to carry this out. The whole night was amazing and everything went so smoothly. We definitely surpassed our own expectations and greatly surpassed our goal! I could not have asked for anything more. I am so happy with the fact that so many people are excited to do it again next year and keep the tradition going!”

Each team was required to have at least one member on the track walking at all times because “cancer never sleeps.” Some participants covered 10 miles or more. When they weren’t walking, folks were socializing, playing lawn or other types of games, reading, eating or enjoying the round-the-clock entertainment.

One group of four girls walked around the track wearing shirts that stated “celebrate more birthdays,” a call to life in a country that has 11 million cancer survivors according to the American Cancer Society. Many teams had special shirts made for all of their members.

“The whole event was amazing and everyone there was great,” Ms. Clifford said. “I could not have asked for a better crowd and I couldn’t be happier about the amount of money we raised. I want to thank Alyssa Knudsen, Mr. Cohen and the committee for everything they did to make this one night truly amazing.”

As skies darkened and night took hold in earnest, small lanterns situated in the Blue Devil Stadium bleachers spelled out the word HOPE, in another tear jerking instance in an evening filled with them.

“I am so thankful that I had this opportunity to be a part of something so amazing,” said senior Brielle Blatt who co-chaired activities/entertainment with classmate Samantha Palmer. “I knew from the start that working with this committee would be so successful and I am so proud of everyone that took part in the event. I was so thrilled that all of the entertainment went smoothly. It was a great feeling to spend one of my last weekends of high school with all of the people I love. I want to thank my entire family for being there for me.”

Team BNAP Honoring Barbara Napolitano

The Huntington Booster Club was on hand providing food and refreshments from the stadium field house. The Huntington Community First Aid Squad maintained a presence throughout the overnight hours. Many local businesses pitched in by buying ads that were placed on signs around the site, contributing to the Relay online through participants and providing goods. Rita’s Ices sold four different flavors and donated the proceeds to Team BNAP, named in honor of Huntington parent Barbara Napolitano, who lost her battle with cancer this spring.

“I found the 12 hours of Relay for Life to be among the most amazing experiences of my life,” Ms. Prep said. “I was overwhelmed with feelings of hope toward the future and proud that our school, our town, was able to truly come together to raise money and awareness towards the cause. The evening could only be described as emotional, inspirational, and, at least personally, liberating. In the midst of the pain of remembering those lost to cancer, our community was still able to support and rouse each other to make the night fun and enjoyable. I feel that Relay For Life was a huge success and hope to see it thrive as a Huntington High School event for many years to come.”

This marks the first time Huntington High School has organized its own Relay For Life. “So many people came up to me this weekend saying thank you for bringing Relay to Huntington,” Mr. Straub said. “But, I didn’t. Huntington brought Relay For Life to Huntington. Students, teachers and community members alike stepped up to the plate for one reason, for one fight. Everyone had the same mindset this weekend; to put 110 percent into a cause that we all felt was extremely important. Without the belief in finding a cure and trust in the American Cancer Society, even the most influential person in the world couldn’t get 600 people together for one purpose.”

Bands, singers and two DJs provided entertainment from a large portable stage brought to the site by the Town of Huntington for use during the event. Some high school students took to the stage from time to time and danced as others continued to silently circle the track.

“I am so proud of Huntington and the students for working so hard to defeat cancer and fight for more birthdays,” Ms. Martinolich said. “We really owe it to everyone for making it a night to remember, I really could not be any happier!”

Many expressed the belief that it was “remarkable” that such a first-time mega-event could run so smoothly in a clear tribute to the organizing committee. “For some time now I’ve been telling people how ready I am to leave Huntington and go off to college,” Mr. Straub said. “But, after sitting on the stage at 3 a.m., looking out onto the track and seeing the fellowship among the community, I realized how much I am going to miss this place. I’ll definitely be back for the Relay For Life at Huntington High School in 2013 and I can assure everyone, without any reservation, that it will be even more impressive next year.”

The emotional scene included folks of all ages, from newborns in strollers to elderly men and women that needed assistance walking. All blended together in an impressive display. “It was a great night for Huntington community members, demonstrating once again that we are clearly capable of coming together and making a significant difference,” Mr. Polansky said.

Mr. Cohen said that organizers “couldn’t have made this happen without the administration, school board, buildings and grounds department, security, staff, students and community.”

As those who stayed overnight headed to their cars early Sunday morning there was a sense of exhaustion. Later in the day, after they had a chance to rest, feelings of pride emerged as they realized they had just participated in one of the greatest events in Huntington High School’s long history.

“I would just like to say thank you,” Mr. Straub said. “Thank you everyone for creating such a moving event that blew away my craziest dreams. Thank you for caring so much about curing cancer. Thank you for embodying the true spirit of Huntington. Thank you.”

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