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By Raoul Biron, Staff Writer

At 9 p.m. on Saturday night, the lights outside of the Whittemore Center turned purple and the lights inside the arena turned off. Relay For Life had been underway for nine hours, and for the first time since noon the mix of students, faculty, cancer survivors and caregivers stopped walking around the arena’s concourse to hold vigil.

“If you’re here as a survivor, please crack your glow sticks,” announced a member of the Relay For Life Committee.

“If you’re here for a mother or father please crack your glow sticks,” she continued, “for a sibling, please crack your glow sticks.”

The silent crowd began to glow purple. When those in support of grandparents, friends and loved ones were asked to light theirs, the sounds of cracking filled the space and participants, now illuminating the rink, began walking again. Everyone in attendance was holding a glow stick.

In 30-foot letters on either side of the arena the words “hope” and “cure” were spelled in glowing paper bags, inscribed with personal messages of remembrance and support.

The international fundraiser is organized by the American Cancer Society and has raised an estimated $5 billion in the last 30 years. For 24 hours, sponsored teams and supporters take shifts walking laps and patronizing vendors around the track who donate their proceeds. Cancer survivors in attendance are honored and walk the first lap of the event alone, celebrating and being celebrated for their victories of overcoming the disease.

“This represents a day in the life of someone fighting cancer, a disease that never sleeps,” said Charlotte Osborne, a senior physical education major and co-chair of the committee.

Relay For Life has been held annually at University of New Hampshire for 12 years and has raised a total of over $1 million. The Relay For Life Committee organizes the event, a UNH student org comprised of a group of students whose shared focus is to coordinate this yearly fundraiser.

“It’s something that brings people together. We’re all here for one reason – that’s to stand up and fight against cancer,” Osborne said.

“I feel like the biggest thing that would drive somebody to work this hard is a personal experience with cancer,” said Logan Thorner, a junior recreation and policy major as well as a committee member.

The committee relied on food donations to support participants and was flooded with support from businesses, including UNH Dining Services, Dunkin Donuts, Panera Bread and Starbucks.

“We receive monetary and food donations,” said Sam Lewis, a sophomore occupational therapy major and Committee member. “Local businesses have been really supportive. I think we bought spoons. That’s the only thing that the American Cancer Society had to pay for.”

The event, spanning from noon on Saturday to noon on Sunday, raised a total of $75,564, with contributions from the day-of reaching roughly $6,000. Five hours into the fundraiser, the largest individual contribution had reached $800, one participant had already raised and donated $1,700, and a team organized by Alpha Phi Omega donated a combined $14,500. The team was named after the co-ed fraternity’s former faculty advisor and cancer victim John Grossi.

“We set a goal. If you want to walk, you have to raise $100 each. A lot of us surpassed that pretty quickly. And that’s with 150-plus people in the chapter,” Kristen Erichson, a sophomore biomedical sciences: pre-veterinarian major and member of Team Grossi said. 

Over 900 people signed up for the relay at UNH and over 40 student organizations were represented.

“Almost every chapter on campus has a team present,” said Ben Dyson, a Relay For Life committee member and president of UNH’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter.

“Representing here is really important because it’s so well-known and it’s such a universal cause,” Dyson said.

The success of the fundraiser was put into perspective when participants who donated over $100 were given white t-shirts. The seemingly endless loop of people walking around the Whit’s concourse was quickly speckled with white shirts, each representing tangible progress towards fighting the disease.

“A lot of people don’t know that only $35 is able to help two cancer patients,” Osborne said.

By noon on Sunday, visibly exhausted participants began trickling out of the Whittemore Center, but committee stayed behind. Taking pictures, cleaning up and celebrating, many of the members seemed more energized than the day before.

“We’ve already started planning for next year,” Thorner said.

@RaoulBiron