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Escalon Relay Passes $50,000 Mark
By the time it was over, rain had soaked the participants, wind had blown more than one tent away and some of the planned festivities fell victim to the unseasonable weather ... but those taking part in Escalon's first Relay For Life raised more than $50,000 anyway.

The signature fundraising event of the American Cancer Society, Relay For Life was staged at Escalon High School this past weekend, kicking off with the opening ceremonies on Saturday morning and wrapping up on Sunday morning, 24 hours later, with a final celebration lap around the track at Engel Field.

Chairman Jeff Fernandes said he couldn't have been more proud of his community for the way they turned out - rain and wind were no deterrent - and joined forces to fight back against cancer.

"Wow," he said on Monday, after drying off and getting final figures from the event. "It wasn't raining ... it was pouring. But we really made it happen."

At Sunday morning's closing ceremonies, the figures raised hovered around the $48,500 mark and he had put out a challenge for the community to make up the $1500 difference by the time the Relay For Life financial year ends on Aug. 31.

But, he said, some on-line funds and additional donations that hadn't been tallied up on Sunday were counted later and pushed the first Escalon event to a total of $50,830.

Fernandes, who has been involved with the Oakdale Relay For Life for the past few years, felt compelled to get in deeper when he watched a friend, who had undergone cancer treatment, come alive and get energized at the Oakdale event a couple of years ago. He met with ACS staff member Cheryl Brunk and plans were put in motion to bring Relay to Escalon.

The 24-hour period signifies that 'cancer never sleeps' and has team members, at least one from each team, on the track at all times. There are also fundraising activities put on by teams, from sales of food and beverages to carnival games, merchandise, 'opportunity drawing' baskets and more.

Serving as the guest speaker for opening ceremonies on Saturday morning was Joe Bick from Tuolumne County, a veteran and cancer survivor.

"What is important is what's happening here," he told the crowd assembled as the rain started to fall.

Bick said he has seen comrades give their lives in service to their country and said there is no greater gift, adding that in their own way, relay participants also give of themselves to help others.

"You come out here in the rain, as Americans, as citizens ... and you take a little bit of your lives and you lay them down.

"Your personal discomfort and your personal sacrifice means everything to me ... because I understand it."

Survivors proudly carried the banner to officially start the 24-hour event, holding their umbrellas, donning their boots and rain gear and circling the track.

Throughout the day, there was entertainment from groups including Without Doubt - one member has a young son that is a cancer survivor - solo artist LilLana Cajias and the evening band Electric Shoes. A couple of other scheduled performers were advised to bow out due to the bad weather at midafternoon.

Co-chairman Josh Huebner - also a cancer survivor - was just one of many personally touched by the disease that served on the planning committee. Survivor chairperson Chryse Seeman is a cancer survivor herself, luminaria ceremony speaker Lee McNinch is a cancer survivor ... and many team captains got involved in the effort because of the loss of a family member or friend to the disease or because someone they know is currently battling cancer.

Three participants donated their hair for Locks Of Love, the Curves team twice offered Zumba dance for anyone willing to try it, and the Be Your Own Miracle team coordinated a balloon release in the early evening. Messages written to loved ones lost were tied on to the balloons and released simultaneously, taking off in the wind.

The evening luminaria ceremony included remarks from McNinch and a show put together by her daughter, Megan McNinch, with photos contributed of cancer survivors and victims. A circle of light, with participants lighting hand candles and passing the light down the line, added to the ceremony.

Lee McNinch said when she got her breast cancer diagnosis, she first spent a couple of hours at the end of her long driveway pacing, not exactly sure how to proceed.

"I just kept praying that I would be able to see my kids graduate from high school ..." she said, choking back emotion.

She said she was able to do that, and found out that the community is very supportive and that, going through treatment, she discovered she didn't have to be alone.

"You find out there are other survivors out there," she said. "You share your ideas. You go on. There is a drive in us that keeps us going ... another day, another month, another year."

Luminaria bags lit the way for walkers throughout the night, with rain falling intermittently but the candles staying lighted inside the brightly decorated bags.

The 'Fight Back' team of mom Tammy and children Courtney and Nickolas Russell took signatures on a banner and offered cancer detection, treatment and prevention information.

Sixteen teams circled the track at Escalon High, from the young Cougars Care team to the Enterprise 4-H Kids for a Cure, the Wings of Hope team to the Smiling for a Cure team by Escalon Dental. In all, the community came together for the 24 hours and achieved above and beyond.

"What they want in a 'baby' relay, which Escalon was, was 12 teams and $24,000," said Fernandes.

The community more than doubled the fundraising goal and also brought more teams to the battle. Next year, said Fernandes, he expects even more.

"The tennis shoes came off, everyone was wearing boots and people just did it," he said. "I'm happy, happy, happy."

ACS staff partner Sheila Doberenz said Escalon didn't disappoint.

"Our first interest meeting, we outgrew the site," she said. "That should tell you something."

Businesses and service groups, including the Escalon Lions Club - on board as a $1,000 silver sponsor - and the Escalon Sunrise Rotary Club, which hosted dinner Saturday evening for the survivors - also got involved and many businesses contributed financially or in kind to make the event a success.

A team captain and committee wrap up is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 6 at 2 p.m. in the Main Street Park, with anyone interested in serving on the committee next year also invited to attend.