Grays Harbor Relay for Life scaling back, moving indoors

By Kat Bryant

Grays Harbor News Group

After some 30 years, Grays Harbor Relay for Life is undergoing a complete makeover with a new date, hours and location.

Relay, a major annual fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, is staged by volunteers in communities nationwide at various times of the year. It’s generally a 24-hour walk on a loop, with teams of people staking out “campsites” as rest areas and taking turns on the track so that at least one person from each team is always walking. The teams spend months collecting donations before the annual event. Some work on it year-round.

For years, Grays Harbor Relay has been staged in June around the Hoquiam High School running track. This summer, it’s planned for July 25 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. at the Shoppes at Riverside in Aberdeen.

Organizers had no choice but to downsize the event.

“It takes upwards of 60 people to pull everything together to do it at the track, and there were only three of us showing up for the meetings to make decisions and try to do everything,” said Lisa Poisso, one of the three Grays Harbor “tri-leads” along with Scott Sipe and Salina Holder. “We had to scale it back to something we could handle — or not have one at all.”

As the trio sat around a table at the Shoppes at Riverside back in November, considering their options, Poisso looked up and noticed a mall walker.

And then another one.

And it clicked.

The “pro” column was loaded: There would be no rain and no wind. No large tents would have to be rented, freeing up a large chunk of funds that could now go directly to the Cancer Society. The Aberdeen mall is a central location with direct bus service and plenty of parking. And it would be safer in general having an enclosed area with a level walking surface.

One item in the “con” column was that no open flames would be allowed. That affects the Luminaria Ceremony, which has traditionally used candles in paper bags to represent lives directly touched by cancer. But there are simple solutions to that.

“We’ve talked about using electric candles or glowsticks,” said Poisso. “We’ve also talked about turning the lights off in the mall and getting it as dark as we can for the ceremony.”

And instead of lining the walking track with the luminaria bags, which would create a tripping hazard in this venue, organizers are working with mall management to come up with an alternative. A couple of ideas being floated are lining the storefronts with the lights, or placing them on the edge of the large planters scattered throughout the halls.

The mall’s central stage will serve as the main area for ceremonies and announcements, and management is working with Relay organizers to work out other logistics of bringing this traditionally outdoor event under the mall’s roof.

“We will be opening up unoccupied spaces inside for ‘campsites’ and social gathering spaces,” said Jasmine Dickhoff, property and marketing manager of the Shoppes at Riverside. “We will dedicate space outside for barbecuing, and in the old Kmart space — which is now a green outdoor space — we want to have people lounging, walking and playing games.”

Dickhoff, former mayor of Hoquiam, was sad to see the event leave her hometown. “But as someone who has seen all too many times a powerful few doing the work of hundreds of people for the benefit of the community, I completely understood,” she said. “We felt that it was our duty to make this transition as sweet, accommodating and positive as possible. We will do whatever we need to do to set this venue up to house as many people as possible that want to remember loved ones and fight for those who need a cure.”

Cutting the event back to 12 hours was required, given the new venue; they couldn’t have the mall for 24 hours. But that move also made sense for other reasons.

Quite a few teams have been participating for decades, and “a lot of us are just getting too old to spend the night out at the track,” laughed Poisso. In addition, it’s tougher to get 24-hour commitments from volunteers who have other things going on in their lives.

“We’re hoping to capture not only the ‘old guard’ of Relay — the teams that have been there every single year — but also more people from the community by doing this on a Saturday in the mall,” she said. “We’re hoping to bring in some new faces and fresh money.”

Poisso herself has been part of Grays Harbor Relay since 1998. Currently, she’s captain of the Garden Gremlins team, which has been participating since 2004. Other teams that have been in it for ages include Aunta’s Angels, Team Bob, and Jenny’s Joggers/Tom’s Trotters.

Fifteen teams have signed up so far to walk this year; four have already raised more than $1,000 each.

Organizers are still looking for more volunteers to help with planning, setup and more. Anyone interested in lending a hand is encouraged to attend the weekly meeting, which starts at 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays in “Scott’s shop” — the space across from All That Glitters where amateur radio classes are held.

“We need to keep Relay going,” said Poisso. “There’s lots of advances being made (in cancer research), but we’re not there yet. We need to keep the grassroots movement going.”

For more information on the Grays Harbor Relay, or to make a donation, visit acsevents.org and click on the blue button that says “Find an event near you.”