More Than a Fundraiser: Relay for Life’s Symbolism

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A look into what the largest collegiate Relay for Life in the world is really about, despite concerns over the American Cancer Society’s funding distribution.
By Stephanie Kapllani, Variety Editor Contact the Editor
Photos by David Greenawald Contact the Photographer

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Luminaria bags on the Drillfield, adorned with the names of those battling and lost to cancer.

For the 15th consecutive year, Virginia Tech hosted Relay for Life Friday, April 22. The event itself raised about $570,000, a new record high, as a result of the efforts of 144 student committee and executive members who have worked yearlong to fundraise and organize for the event. According to a speech made in the opening ceremonies by Adam Bloom, a senior business information technology (BIT) major and this year’s student director for Relay for Life, the Tech Relay has raised over 5.4 million dollars since its first in 2001.

This was my first Relay for Life experience. I initially began this journey with a very cynical mindset. Today, so many charity watchdog websites and lists of worst charities in the world are littered with cancer “nonprofit” organizations that are notorious for allocating only a small percentage of their funds to actually furthering cancer research and direct cancer patient care. I dug deeper into the American Cancer Society (ACS), the organization that benefits from Relay for Life, and was not surprised to find they do not have a shining record.

The ACS was founded in 1913 and has grown to become one of the largest nonprofit organizations in the world. As a result, it has come under great scrutiny during its lifetime. According to data collected in 2014, the ACS website reports 74 percent of their funds go to program expenses (which include cancer research, patient support, prevention information and education, and detection and treatment) while 26 percent go to supporting services that include both fundraising and administrative expenses. However, Charity Navigator reports with a total revenue of over 850 million collected in 2014, only about 60 percent of the funds go to actual program expenses—that’s almost a 15 percent difference in the financial reports. Meanwhile, 34 percent goes to fundraising and 6 percent goes to administrative costs. ACS was given 2 out 4 stars, ranking high for accountability and transparency while receiving a very low financial score.

Either way, there is no denying that a large amount of the money does go to overhead funds. According to a Huffington Post article in 2012, “10 Insanely Overpaid Nonprofit Execs,” previous ACS CEO John Seffrin earned over a 2 million dollar salary. Although it is typically viewed that CEO’s of a nonprofit making over one million is excessive, there is a large split on whether it is truly a bad thing. While some may argue that the primary motivation for working at a nonprofit should be strictly for the betterment of the public good, others point out that you want to attract talented leaders with a higher compensation; the end result being they’ll do a better job at serving the public.

Participants capture a snapshot of their candles, which symbolize remembrance.

Courtney Thomas and her son Levi.

The name “American Cancer Society” is also a broad term. With such an encompassing name, it’s not exactly obvious that the funds are primarily going to breast cancer and other adult cancer research. Courtney Thomas, a political science professor at Tech, says she loves Relay for Life but is also concerned with the ACS’s withdrawal of financial support for pediatric cancer camps:

My primary concern is that a couple of years ago, the American Cancer Society decided to defund the pediatric cancer camps that it supported. A fair number of other pediatric cancer camps across the country took a real hit to their funding and the services they were able to provide when the ACS decided to withdraw its funding and support from their programs. Pediatric cancers are one of the least funded and least supported cancers in the country, about three percent of the National Cancer Institute budget goes to pediatric cancers. There have been almost no new treatments and chemotherapeutic drugs invented, developed or approved for pediatric cancer patients in the last 10 years. For a very large organization to withdraw its support at that age is a powerful statement and one I think we need to consider as a society in terms of where we want to put our resources.

It is true that pediatric cancer research remains less funded than adult cancer research. According to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, “only four percent of federal government cancer research funding goes to children and since 1980, fewer than 10 drugs have been developed for use in children with cancer.” Why the ACS has withdrawn most of its funding, spending only a penny to every dollar raised on pediatric cancer research and care, is unclear. I reached out to a representative from the ACS for the clarification but they did not immediately respond to my requests for comment. Overall, it’s important to be informed of where your money is going. Thomas advised donors to only donate to organizations that they are sure of. “I don’t think we have to choose. There’s a competition for resources but it’s also just about being aware that there are other ways and there are other avenues,” Thomas said. “I think it’s important to realize there’s other options and other places that you can support.”

However, despite the concerning questions of how much and where the funds are going exactly, ACS has made some great contributions toward cancer research in 2015. Some of these include new detection procedures, progress towards new drugs and vaccines, and better treatment plans. This begs the question, is it really feasible to expect perfect work from an organization that has become so large?

“With anything you’re going to have some kind of administrative costs that you need, so it wouldn’t work if we didn’t have advertising, if we didn’t have fundraising, and if we didn’t do those things,” said Sydney Drinko, a junior psychology major and team recruitment co-executive for Tech’s Relay. “I get it because when you think of an organization like this, you want to think that all of it goes to [research] but that’s just not completely realistic.”

ACS provides programs like Road to Recovery, which takes cancer patients to their treatments for free if they don’t have a way to get there. They also run the Look Good Feel Better program, which is a way for patients that may have lost their hair during chemo and radiation to receive a free wig and other beauty products. The ACS’ Hope’s Lodge provides a place to stay for patients who don’t have the means to afford one while they travel away from home to receive treatments. Fundraising co-executive for Tech’s Relay and senior animal and poultry sciences major Nicole Teets finds the work of the ACS valuable. “I just know that whatever we’re doing, we’re doing good and that’s the bottom line,” Teets said. “As long as some of these funds are really going to people that need it, and they’re changing lives, and they’re saving lives, and giving people extra days with their loved ones—I feel like that’s the core of everything that matters.”

Dark clouds threaten rain above the event.

As I continued my first-time Relay experience, past the opening speeches and survivor lap, I began to see Relay for Life in a new light. The more people I talked to, the more I saw that it’s an experience unique to each individual. Relay student organizers advertise extensively for the event, the initial draw being just the desire to be a part of something so large. As Thomas explained it:

Virginia Tech has done an amazing job of institutionalizing this. This is an event in the spring. You do Big Event, you do Relay, and then you do graduation. This a huge part of what it means to be at Virginia Tech in the spring. I think you have a lot of people here for the communal aspect, less than they are committed to the cause itself and that’s incredible, but it’s not necessarily reflective or very conscious, it’s more the communal aspect than it is the philanthropic aspect. And so I just think it’s important to differentiate between the two.

Starting out, a good number of students I interviewed didn’t have an idea of what Relay for Life is really about so institutionalizing the event may not be a bad thing. It attracts hundreds of members from our community, including myself, to want to be a part of an exciting experience, which isn’t all that Relay is about. However, there is the hope that by the end of the night, those who came in imperceptive leave inspired and with the enthusiasm to want to make a difference the next go around. Whether you’re attracted to the event just to see the awesome performances or because you want to remember a loved one you’ve lost—any reason at all being reason enough.

Nick Schlegel, a junior BIT major, Greek engagement co-executive for Relay, and second top participant touted the significance of the event to be in the hope it could bring. “I hope it inspires as many people as I think it does,” Schlegel said. “Because we’re raising money, we’re getting people signed up, but one of the most important things we’re doing is we’re raising hope. We’re putting hope in a lot of these people’s hearts and minds, and sometimes that’s what you need to get through.”

Lanterns spell out a “hope” on the steps of Burruss Hall.

Junior BIT major Nick Schlegel (far right).

I, too, began to become inspired. As I went through the day interviewing people and hearing their stories, looking to see all the hard work different organizations put in order to fundraise for the event, and witnessing groups of friends and families cry and hold each other close, I realized that Relay for Life is a place where a community can support one another through losses and grief and feel a sense of empowerment at the change they hope to make. “The survivors are really why we’re here,” said Stephanie Cole, a junior human development major and survivor and caregiver executive for Relay. “It’s why we do what we do. They’re the living breathing testimony to what the American Cancer Society does and where our research and our money is going to.” Witnessing the survivors and those who came to walk for those who weren’t physically able to be present, was an emotional experience.

One survivor shared his story with me. Paul Ryan Bender, a graduate student in civil engineering from Hazlet, New Jersey, was diagnosed with a rare form of Leukemia at the age of nine in 2001. When Bender needed a bone marrow transplant as part of his treatment, his father was a match. On the first transplant attempt, the marrow didn’t take—but the second one did. Bender has been in remission since 2004. “Relay is a great community support role, it plays a huge role in promoting cancer research, and for me, it’s been a way to express my gratitude for all the people in my life that have really helped me along the way,” Bender said.


The Relay for Life executive committee stands on stage at the beginning of the event.

Even for those who really don’t know what Relay for Life is all about or what the ACS does, there’s something to be said for at least giving it a chance. Things began to become real for me during the luminaria ceremony. As Relayers all stood together in remembrance, we lit up the darkness around us with candles symbolizing the loved ones lost. The experience itself is indescribable. “It’s almost kind of like an out of body experience for me,” Drinko shares, “just because you’re standing there and you see these thousands of bags that are lit up for people that have cancer or we’ve lost to cancer, and you’re just walking with your fellow peers, your family, your friends, and you’re just thinking about all those people, and it’s very emotional but it’s a good reflection on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

Although it is important to know where your money is going and what you’re fighting for, Relay for Life is a great way to explore that. Past becoming informed, there’s the hope that one continues to stay engaged in the effort.
“There are a thousand things you can be doing just because that aren’t nearly as helpful so applause all around,” said Christopher Thomas, Courtney Thomas’ spouse. “But there is a lot more depth to this event than a cool party on the Drillfield. If you choose to engage in a deeper level there is no end of work that still needs to be done beyond the fundraising. We tend to point to research as being the big draw here. We’re relaying not just to support research. We’re doing this for it to be possible for the fruits of that research to see their way into the medical regimes that need it.”

So what is Relay for Life really about? Why do hundreds of people persevere through terrible weather conditions and exhausting hours late into the night to fight for something that can’t guarantee a solution to a disease that has devastated so many families? Relay for Life at Tech is more than just a fundraiser, it is the largest collegiate community gathering for a cause that has affected so many people. It is the culmination of the endless hours of sweat and tears put in by the students who helped fundraise and organize it all. It is a time to remember the loved ones lost to cancer and celebrate those survivors who have won and are still fighting. Regardless of the criticisms on ACS as a whole, Tech’s Relay is symbolic for its attendees. As Steve O’Donnell from the Midnight Marchers says, “It’s all about hope and the hope that this is the last one.”


Junior human development major Michelle Arroyo carries cancer survivor Leila Lovell.

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About the Author

Stephanie Kapllani

Stephanie Kapllani is an avid adventure junkie from Northern Virginia, who just recently made the leap from pre-med to a technical writing and language and literature major her junior year. With this 180 degree turn comes her newfound passion for journalism, having recently become the Variety editor of The Pylon. Although she has no idea what she wants to do after college, she aspires to live a fulfilling life studying literature and hopefully someday pursuing a teaching career.