Alan Sims, left, A.J. Sims, center, and Adrian Sims horse around at Brookwood High School’s football field. Alan participated in the survivor’s walk at Relay For Life on Friday night. The 9-year-old’s leukemia is in remission.
We get our reminders from different places in life. Even at a gathering like Relay For Life — the American Cancer Society event held this past weekend — where symbolism for the fight against cancer is everywhere, it can sneak up on you.
Sometimes the reminder comes from a word or phrase you hear or a memory it evokes. And sometimes it comes in a simpler form — like a little boy asking for a beach ball.
Like thousands of others, I went to the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds on Friday night to participate in the event. As you may have heard, it is the biggest Relay event in the world — a designation that isn't doubted by anyone who tried to drive to the venue in advance of the 7 p.m. start.
It's estimated that nearly 15,000 people attended. With its theme being to celebrate cancer survivors and honor those who have lost their lives to the disease, there were plenty of people with both inspiring and sad stories to tell.
Somehow in that setting, with that group of people in attendance, I still managed to be surprised at how randomly cancer strikes. Alan Sims — the little boy I handed the beach ball to — is the reason.
I had never met Alan or his family before Friday night. But I had read plenty about his older brother, A.J., a football star at Brookwood High. I had even commented on A.J.'s exploits for the "Gwinnett Prep Rally" TV show I co-host. I knew A.J. was fast, knew he had great hands and knew he had committed to Michigan State to play football.
But I didn't know his youngest brother was a cancer survivor.
That's how cancer works. Often it strikes where you'd least expect it.
Alan is 9 years old, a third-grader at Gwin Oaks Elementary. His leukemia is in remission and he had his access port removed in January. He feels great and proudly took part in the survivor's walk, flanked by his brothers Adrian and A.J., his mom Alida and his father Andrew. He heard the cheers as he walked and he smiled.
"It felt great," he said. "I felt happy. It was important that my brothers were there."
Adrian is also a student at Gwin Oaks, a fifth-grader. He and A.J. struggled with their little brother's diagnosis. Alan was just 5 years old when it was discovered he had leukemia, and his many trips to the doctor made it tough for his brothers to concentrate at school.
"It was a very tight-knitting situation for our family," Andre Sims said. "It took its toll, how it affects every family member. But we're a prayerful family, and we had a lot of support. And we pulled through it."
The Snellville family attended its first Relay For Life event in 2007. By that time Alan's prognosis was good, and the family celebrated by spending the night at the fairgrounds. It was a poignant moment for them.
"The biggest thing for us was the very first time we did Relay For Life," Andre Sims said. "And Alan had his bag that said ‘in honor of' on it. A lot of people had them with ‘in memory of' on it. And I said then that I never wanted to have one with my son's name on it that said ‘in memory of.'"
The Sims family enjoyed its time Friday night. They visited the Gwin Oaks tent so Alan could see what his school had done. And they did some dancing, which Alan said was his favorite part.
Mostly, they celebrated. They are now healthy, but the family is changed. Can't help but be.
"I don't pass those collections jars when I see them like I used to," Andre Sims said. "I see those jars and I support the cause. Not only with my child in mind, but for all those children we saw when we were going to Scottish Rite."
"We're glad it happened to us. It brought us all together. (Alan's) been an absolute blessing to us and a lot of people."
E-mail Todd Cline at email@example.com. His column appears on Wednesdays.