The Wilton community gathers once again for its 20th annual Relay For Life event this Friday evening, June 2, at Tom Fujitani Stadium. A night filled with music, happiness, and hope, Relay For Life honors those lost to and those still fighting cancer, while raising money for the American Cancer Society.

Relay is a team fundraising event where team members take turns walking around a track or designated path. Each team is asked to have a member on the track at all times during the evening to signify that cancer never sleeps. Just as cancer patients don’t stop because they’re tired, for one night neither do those walking in support.

This year organizers aimed to increase attendance at the event over the numbers of participants at the 2016 Relay. Last year was a transition year for the Wilton Relay For Life community–with shifting committee chairs and new events popping up in Weston and Norwalk, attendance numbers at the 2016 Wilton Relay unfortunately fell below what had typically been seen at the extremely popular event. The solution organizers came up with to address this problem? Kids.

More specifically, Middlebrook Middle School students who have joined forces with Dr. John Priest, a beloved 6th grade teacher at the school, and this year’s Relay for Life event chair. Under his leadership, students organized 10 fundraising teams through an after school Relay for Life club.

John Priest, at the 2016 Wilton Relay for Life event.

The idea for this club spawned from Priest’s own battle against cancer. After being diagnosed in the summer of 2015, Priest’s circle of confidantes quickly grew past close friends and family, to a whole team of middle school students. Being open with the students about his fight with cancer was of utmost importance, as was turning the experience somehow into a positive.

“Talking about it for me brought people in. And the worst thing about all of this, the thing that I have learned you have to do, is you have to spin things no matter how bad they are. They have to become positive somehow, otherwise it will tear you apart.”

Priest, now cancer free for two years, truly did turn what could be debilitating news into a positive. Wanting to help in any way he could, he started this club which was met with unbridled enthusiasm from all of Middlebrook. Teachers, students, faculty, and parents have all been involved with the club and forming teams. He was helped in the effort by his wife, Heather Priest, who is also a teacher at the school.

“After last year’s Relay I said I wanted to get involved in whatever I can do. [Something] I figured I could do was start a middle school club and just see. So I just threw it out there and within a week, at our first meeting, there were 46 kids,” he says.

Megan DiMattio, Wilton High School senior and a member of the Relay For Life Committee, raves about what a great addition the club has been to the Relay For Life event in Wilton, and how it has helped to greatly increase community participation and attendance numbers.

“Mrs. and Dr. Priest are huge at Middlebrook. They have this club with all these kids who are doing [Relay] and they are so cute. We tried to get a lot more students and parents involved so it is more of a Wilton event, where everyone is kind of there. That way the whole town is involved,” DiMattio says.

The students have been fantastic, helping to get the donation sums up to almost $35,000. Bake sales at the generous Village Market have been a critical component in the fundraising efforts for the Middlebrook teams. In addition, Priest encouraged the students to find ways to raise money inside the school itself.

“A couple of kids on our team came up with a few ideas. Andre came up with his ‘Andre the Giant Jelly Bean Guessing Game,’ at 25-cents a guess. Another group is doing a pie in the face [fundraiser], a sort of silent auction for the teachers on our team. You have an envelope and put which teacher you’re doing it for. And if you donate the highest amount you get to smash a pie in the face of the teacher,” he describes.

Priest emphasizes that these fundraising efforts are not only there to raise money, but to raise awareness as well. What’s more, the kids get to learn how they can really make an impact. “Showing up to events like this, donating, it’s making a difference. it’s got to be because survival rates are going up,” he adds.

Honoring Wilton Resident Sharon Sobel

So what else is to be expected at this year’s Relay For Life event? For starters, Wilton resident Sharon Sobel will be honored with the prestigious Sandra C. Labaree Volunteer Values Award for her steadfast commitment to the American Cancer Society and Relay For Life. The award recognizes one volunteer in the New England Division of the ACS who “embodies the core values of the New England Division: Mission, Diversity, Stewardship, Respect, and Data-Driven.”

Lindsey Hanley, community manager for Relay for Life, nominated Sobel, who was then chosen from a multitude of other New England American Cancer Society and Relay For Life volunteers. Sobel has been a volunteer for 20 years, since the inception of the event in Wilton and has been a vital component to the Wilton Relay ever since.

“The award recognizes an exceptional volunteer who goes above and beyond to finish the fight against cancer and make an impact in his/her community,” Hanley says, adding, “Sharon is also extremely honest, never afraid to share her feelings and experience to make sure that we are doing the best job in Wilton that we possibly can be.”

Music, entertainment, and other aspects of Relay help make it a celebratory event, putting the focus on hope and light rather than on the negative aspects of cancer and cancer treatment. Even the Luminary service–with a lit candle in each of dozens of Luminaria bags lining the track representing a loved one lost to cancer–brings support to those affected by it, and honors survivors. This powerful moment gives people the opportunity to grieve but also offers hope and comfort, acknowledging that everyone is affected by cancer in some way, and Relay is a healing way to come together, find support, and discover ways to be positive.

Joan Wallace, Wilton resident and musician, is in charge of the music for Relay. Those performing on Friday night include:  Kelley Addison, Patty Perry, Janet Nobles, Amy Johnson, Donna Savage, Brad Scheller and Wallace herself.

Addison says she loves performing for the Relay for Life event. “It’s a wonderful event for an incredibly worthy cause. From the excitement of fundraising events, to the quiet reflection of the luminary ceremony, this event honors all who have fought the cancer battle and gives hope for the future.”

This year’s Relay for Life is 90s themed, so participants and supporters are encouraged to come dressed up for the theme and ready to be a part of a Wilton event that is truly special.

The event takes place this Friday, June 2 from 4 p.m.-12 a.m.. Opening ceremonies start at 6:30 p.m. and the survivor and caregiver reception is 5:30-6:30 p.m..

For more information or to donate toward the Wilton Relay for Life fundraising effort, visit the event website.