Schools help Relay for Life stay on top

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Last year, 108 teams from Gwinnett County Public Schools raised more than $1 million for Relay For Life.

With about 130 teams this year, the school system is poised to help Gwinnett's Relay remain the largest in the world.

"The school system plays a huge role in the success of the Relay event," said Randy Redner, the executive area director of the American Cancer Society. "About half of the money raised through Relay For Life is raised through the school system."

Relay For Life is an overnight team event that raises money for the American Cancer Society while celebrating cancer survivors and increasing cancer awareness in the community. This year's Relay will begin with the Survivor Celebration Lap at 7 p.m. Friday at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds.

When students see the Survivor Celebration Lap -- and see kids their own age participating -- the purpose of Relay hits them, said Brooke Wright, the co-captain of Norcross High School's Relay team.

"They see that (cancer) can hit anyone," Wright said. "It makes it more real for them."

Norcross High School has a history of raising the most money among school teams, and Wright said the team is committed to maintaining its No. 1 spot. (North Gwinnett High School's team is challenging Norcross this year to become the lead school fundraiser.)

Wright said students will raise the bulk of the money for the team. In the past 10 years, the Norcross team has raised almost $600,000 for Relay.

The Norcross team has been so successful because the school has fostered a culture that was started by Kirsten Mixter-Baker, Wright said. Relay also offers students leadership opportunities. The school's student council has a special executive office -- the Relay chair -- for which students can run.

Wright said the students have also served this year on the activities committee to help create and develop activities for Relay and "give it some new energy."

Redner said the students bring a lot of energy and passion to the event.

But it's not just students who fuel the school system's success in raising money for the event. So far this year, the school system's transportation department team has raised more than $25,000 for Relay.

"The whole key to our success is the fact that everyone takes to heart what we're doing," said Joyce Kennedy, a team captain and a safety manager for Gwinnett County Public Schools transportation.

Kennedy said the team wouldn't be as successful without the dedication of the bus drivers and managers, many of whom pounded the pavement to raise money between their morning and afternoon routes.

Relay is also an event that people want to participate in year after year, she said.

"Once it gets in your soul, it never leaves you. It's always there," she said. "Knowing there's a brighter tomorrow because of today keeps you going."