Rounding up a cure

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The sweet, smoky scent of grilling burgers and barbecue wafts across the football field as down-home country tunes blast through the speakers. Folks clad in cowboy hats and bandanas greet one another beneath striped top tents decorated with bales of hay and western saddles.

Others walk around the track created on the field, a track flanked by hundreds of small white sacks containing unlit candles. Some pause to look at the names written on those sacks – names of the living and the dead that mean so much to the people who have gathered at the Greenville YMCA that night.

Welcome to &uot;Relay Round Up&uot; at Butler County’s annual Relay For Life, the county’s major fundraiser for the American Cancer Society.

Last Friday night, teams from communities, churches, schools and businesses across the county came together at the Y, the event’s new location.

It was both an annual celebration of those surviving cancer and a concerted effort to raise funds to continue the fight against all forms of the health and life-robbing illness.

Everything from tug-of-war battles and &uot;bull riding&uot; to a solemn luminaria ceremony were part of an evening for all ages to remember.

Cancer survivors like Kathy Atchison, Rose Braden, Vivian Killingsworth, Benny Payne and Ron Roberts gathered at the Survivors’ Tent early in the evening, readying to make their annual victory lap around the track.

&uot;I’m not going to miss the survivors’ walk; I’m so happy to be here,&uot; Payne, a breast cancer survivor, said with a grin.

A staph infection in one eye could not keep Atchison, another breast cancer survivor, from the event. She was one of those who proudly helped carry the banner that led the survivors on their victorious trek.

Teams geared up in hopes of being winners, too. &uot;We have signed up for every activity, including the bull riding – we’ve been talking about Relay all year,&uot; Jill Stallworth of the Bunko Babes team said. The team members, all sporting Western gear, were dishing up the barbecue plates they had pre-sold as a fundraiser.

In addition to raising valuable funds for cancer research, the teams could also earn Relay Bucks toward the coveted Spirit of Relay Trophy. They participated in cook-offs, eagerly sampled by event emcee Ralph Stacey; bull roping (via steer and sheep-headed hay bales); tent competition for best decoration, volleyball, tug of war and more.

Manager Bill McCrary of Greenville’s Wal-Mart Super Center, the event sponsor, called it &uot;a great turn out.&uot;

&uot;Thanks go to all the people who have contributed your time to this great event…I don’t know how we cannot reach our goal. The Y is a great location, and the weather is cooperating with us, too.&uot;

The night’s cool, dry weather allowed the hundreds of youngsters present plenty of opportunities to get in on the fun and games – including finding a furry new friend.

Two-year-old Ashton Mosley was the first RLF attendee to adopt a puppy from the Butler County Humane Society’s tent. After checking out all the friendly, wiggling little dogs on hand, Mosley and his family settled on a cute, fuzzy black and white female to call their own.

An even younger event attendee, Amelia Gregory, age 18 months, enjoyed a (very gentle) ride on the barrel &uot;bull.&uot;

&uot;She had a great time,&uot; her mom, Ann Steiner Gregory, laughed.

Older kids, like Taylor Owens, 11, donned football helmets and managed to hang on much longer than the eight seconds real buckaroos aim for.

Soon, it was time to stop roping the &uot;steers&uot; and riding the barrel for a while – time to clear the track, turn down the field lights and experience the annual luminaria ceremony.

In the quiet of the evening, local ministers read the names of those who had lost their battle with cancer as hundreds of candles softly glowed. As the ceremony ended, Stacy encouraged all those present to make a lap around the track to honor the brave souls who had both won and lost their battles with cancer.

Some were armed with lighters to make sure each candle, each symbol of hope, stayed lit.

&uot;Here’s one that’s out, Benny,&uot; survivor Ron Roberts pointed out as Payne leaned down to re-ignite a dying flame.

The lights continued to flicker as the lights came back up and games resumed. Hula-hoopers extraordinaire competed against one another, With teen Brittany Huckaba and eight-year-old Devin Gavins, representing Mt. Zion Baptist Church, proved the top hip swivelers for the evening.

Ski walk teams and tug-of-war contestants battled it out to the cheers of the crowd. Throngs of folks from toddlers to senior citizens joined in a mass dance to the &uot;Cha-Cha&uot; and &uot;Electric Slide.&uot;

&uot;Wow, look at that – look at all those people out there,&uot; Juanita Poole of the Butler County RLF Committee said with a shake of her head and a smile.

Soon, the brave contestants in the annual womanless beauty pageant took to the Relay stage to vie for the title of Miss Relay 2006.

One small, gap-toothed top three contestant in a purple cowboy hat and pink boots captured the hearts and wallets of judges and audience alike. Mustang Sally, better known as Trip Richardson, took the title to overwhelming applause.

Little Trip shared a hug with his proud grandmother, Becky Manning of Chapman, then posed with the Spirit of Relay Award Trophy, won by a new Relay team, the Snowdrifters from Dr. Everett Snow’s office.

And while they didn’t win the big trophy, the Bunko Babes felt pretty darned good about their contribution to the event.

&uot;I think we raised about $ 2,200 this year,&uot; team member Debra Arthur said as she snapped photos of the &uot;glammed-up&uot; guys on the stage.

As for the $100,000 goal, it was met and exceeded by more than $12,000, much as McCrary expected.

&uot;Butler County people are some of the most giving people you will find,&uot; RLF Chair Joan Reynolds had said.

As the lights continued to flicker on the field, it seemed so very true.