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20th Annual Relay for Life unites community in fight against cancer

It was ‘back to the future’ on Saturday, June 16, as the Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst and Dyker Heights communities gathered at Poly Prep Country Day School to celebrate the American Cancer Society’s 20th anniversary Relay for Life at the place where it all started 20 years ago.

Hundreds of survivors, their families and friends crowded the Poly Prep field to help support the fight against cancer. Students from more than 20 schools in Brooklyn united together with the goal of raising funds specifically for pediatric cancer research.

The event recognized and celebrated local cancer survivors with a survivor’s ceremony, and honored those who lost their cancer battle with a remembrance ceremony. 

The event featured performances from P.S. 200, William McKinley Junior High School 259, P.S. 264, P.S. 127, Fontbonne Hall Academy and other schools.  Children enjoyed various activities including a scavenger hunt, an obstacle course and a donut toss.

The Relay for Life lasted from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. with the official opening ceremony at 1 p.m., the survivor ceremony at 3 p.m., and the luminaria ceremony at 9 p.m.

Event organizers included Renee Regnier, community development manager for the ACS; Amy Procida-Christodoulou, volunteer event chair for Relay for Life; and committee members Sally La Terra and Elaine Delaney.

There were booths with food and games set up by the schools, community groups and civic organizations. Elected officials including U.S. Rep. Dan Donovan and state Sen. Marty Golden stopped by the booths and offered words of encouragement.

Procida-Christodoulou welcomed everyone at the opening ceremony.  “This year Relay celebrates 20 years in the community,” she said. “We’re very honored and privileged to be invited back to Poly Prep where the event started 20 years ago today.” Procida has been participating in the Relay for 19 years.

“I Relay to find a cure, so that I don’t have to lose another loved one,” Procida-Christodoulou told this paper. “I Relay so that I don’t have to hear the words you have cancer again.”

Procida-Christodoulou introduced Kris Kim, executive vice-president of ACS, Northeast Region. “Twenty years is a long time to do anything, let alone do the hard work of fighting cancer,” Kim said. “I know many of you have relayed with your schools and families in Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, and you know you’re not just part of an event but you’re part of a movement, a powerful force that’s going to eliminate cancer.”

Kim, a resident of Brooklyn, said that she attended her first Relay for Life 19 years ago, “and it was as glorious then as it is today.” She said that the Bay Ridge-Dyker-Bensonhurst event has raised over $3 million over 20 years in the fight against cancer.

Relay for Life began in 1985 when Dr. Gordon “Gordy” Clapp walked and ran around a track in Tacoma, Washington in order to help raise awareness and funding for his local cancer charity.

Karina Costantino, community superintendent of District 20, said, “I couldn’t be prouder of all the schools represented here today and I couldn’t be prouder of all of the leadership in these communities.” She presented Procida-Christodoulou and Delaney with awards of recognition for their work.

The Civic Service award was given to Rosemarie Rizzo of Rosie’s Confidence Corner in Bay Ridge. “I live each day with a positive mind and my motto is live, laugh, love,” Rizzo said. “And when I look around here, I see all the beautiful people who do just that and keep that positive attitude going.”

Team captain honorees were J.H.S. 220 John J. Pershing’s Christina Pennisi and Victoria Reinhardt.

The Purple Star award is given annually to a committee member who shows relay spirit and dedication to the cause. This year’s honoree was Regnier, who has worked tirelessly behind the scenes for the past 13 years.

“Let’s give it up for our survivors,” Golden said. “We have survivors because it’s a different era and different time and because of science and technology and what this city and other cities around the world are doing by putting money into biotech and biomed. It’s made a difference and it will continue to make a difference.”

Golden added, “It’s unfortunate that we still lose lives to cancer and we’re all here to support those families that have lost loved ones to this disease.”

Donovan said that it was personal for him because his mother was a cancer survivor. “My mother had Paget’s disease,” Donovan said, “and she was misdiagnosed for so long.” He said that it was because of the support of ACS that she was able to get through it.

The moving luminaria remembrance ceremony closed out the day. “This event is special to me for so many reasons, but the one that stands out above all is our luminaria ceremony,” Procida-Christodoulou said. “We sell over 10,000 Luminaria bags and this event sells more bags than any Relay in the world.”

All money raised goes to research and patient services that ACS offers to families in Brooklyn and beyond, according to Ashley Engelman, communications director for ACS Northeast Region.

“We had 1200 attendees throughout the day, and 65 cancer survivors walked the survivor lap,” Engelman said. “This year’s event is on track to have its most successful fundraising year ever. We’re projecting $230,000 raised in the fight against cancer.”

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