Staff Photo: John Bohn Cassie Muenchen, 13, front left, Maggie O'Leary, 13, second from left, and Rachel Godleski, 13, third from left, participate in the purple glove dance at the Gwinnett County Relay for Life held Friday evening, at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds. Over 12,000 people are expected to attend the overnight event.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- When Phylecia Wilson remembers the early years of Gwinnett's Relay for Life organization, the fundraising goals were modest compared to today's figures.
Wilson, the founder and chair for four years, said the first year had 25 teams with a goal of about $50,000. In its 20th year, the event has grown to 262 teams and expects to be near $2 million in annual fundraising and about $30 million overall raised for the American Cancer Society since 1994. All that money goes toward research and patient support programs.
"So many of us that have been touched by cancer, people want to do something, do more than write a check," said Wilson, who is involved with a Relay team in Habersham County, and trains volunteers around the country and the world.
Wilson's personal story is a testament to the fundraising capability of ACS. About 12 years ago, she was diagnosed with leukemia, and a drug that she takes now that put her in remission almost immediately was developed by a man who received his first funding from ACS.
Since the drug wasn't developed until 2001, Wilson realizes the significance of the timing of her diagnosis and treatment for it.
"It means to all of us, 20 years ago even, I might not have survived," said Wilson, who added that her husband is also a survivor from bladder cancer. "We're surviving because of the work ACS has done over 100 years."
At the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds on Friday night, about 12,000 people joined to celebrate cancer survivors, honor lost loved ones and continue the fight against cancer. This year's Gwinnett Relay has more than 6,000 participants who have raised more than $1.1 million so far, according to the ACS website.
Since those early days, the fundraising totals have grown from $119,926 to more than $1 million in 1999. For several years, the Gwinnett chapter collected more than $2 million from the public. It had a 10-year streak where the effort was ranked No. 1 in the world. Last year, when it finished second, the group donated $1.87 million to the ACS.
The all-night walking event featured hundreds of tents with teams selling food, drinks and face painting. A survivor lap featured upbeat music where attendees celebrated those who have survived cancer. The Berkmar High School drum line led off the lap. A bagpiper played during a silent luminaria ceremony to remember people who lost a cancer battle.
For the fourth straight year, the group Mothers and Daughters Against Cancer led hundreds in the "purple glove dance," which was a series of swaying hands and boogying.
Ralph Patterson, 70, of Lawrenceville walked the survivor lap wearing a novelty top hat with red, white and blue stars and stripes, along with sunglasses with palm trees.
Patterson gave a high five to every willing man, woman and child.
"There's something about fighting cancer that's really fantastic," said Patterson, a survivor of six years. "All these people are out here for a reason. This Relay for Life is the perfect thing for people to get together. I thought by hitting hands and getting people to yell, I was trying to yell the cancer out."
Patterson also was an entrant in the "Miss Relay" pageant, and wore a black evening dress. Patterson was a member of the team called "By His Stripes We Are Healed" and said he knew several family members and friends who battled cancer.
Patterson said walking the survivor lap "felt fantastic" and he told his daughter, who walked with him, that he wanted to do another lap.
One of the first music groups on stage was from Hope and Life Fellowship Church in Snellville, which performed several inspirational songs. The group was led by Renee Pullum, who is a survivor.
"To be asked to be here on the 20th year, it meant everything," Pullum said. "We've been preparing and anticipating this night."
The audience interaction was evident to Pullum, who said one survivor was crying because she was overcome by emotion listening to the performance.
"They were so supportive, so giving," Pullum said. "We could feel their hearts open."
The top teams so far are North Gwinnett High School, which raised more than $116,000, Norcross High School, which had more than $49,000 and Mill Creek High School, which had a total of more than $27,000, according to the ACS website.
Click here for more Relay for Life photos.