Baruch College graduate Kathie Smith, who lost her father to cancer and found great comfort in Relay for Life events while she was in college, founded the Bergen Beach event three years ago.
“I liked the way it went at Baruch, and I wanted to start the same thing here,” Smith said. “It’s been really great. We already surpassed our grand total of last year by this morning, and I don’t’ want to jinx it, but it’s looking like this year is going to be a $100,000 fundraiser.”
Smith credits much of the success of her event to the participation of local schools led by District 22 Superintendent Rhonda Farkas, who was honored on Saturday.
“This year the schools have done really well. We got all the schools in District 22 to participate,” Smith said. “We ran a fitness program called Fight Back with Fitness and it was really popular. One school, PS 312, raised over $9,000 just from doing things like penny drives.”
Joe Gillette, an attorney who works as the event’s co-chair, said that without the help of the schools, it wouldn’t have been possible to raise as much money as they had to support cancer research for the past three years.
“During the year, we do a bunch of fundraisers and our biggest events right now are fitness programs,” Gillette said while making a lap around the relay track. “We have local sponsors like Harbor Fitness, JSK Karate and RockFit, and they volunteer to work with us to go into the schools with the kids and do fitness programs.”
Gillette believes that the programs have been as successful as they are because they give the kids a chance to do something out of the ordinary for a good cause, rather than focusing on the negative side of cancer education.
“It’s like going on a school trip for them,” Gillette said. “The kids go nuts doing zumba classes and karate and cross-fit classes. It really becomes the positive agenda of the Cancer Society. Whereas a lot of the places go in and they teach kids about the negative side, we have kind of flipped it on its head and it is working. It becomes contagious because everyone just feels good about it.”
Roughly 200 people made their way to the John Malone Center in McGuire Park to support their friends and loved ones who have had to face cancer.
Survivor Jody Schwartz, who shared her harrowing story of fear, hair loss and unwavering support from her friends and family, publicly for the first time delivered an emotionally stirring keynote speech.
Ben Messner, who recently took over coordinating the New York City portfolio of Relay for Life events, said he was extremely pleased to be working with the Bergen Beach Relay team, crediting much of the success for this year to coordination with local school districts.
“The committee is just incredible,” Messner said. “In the five boroughs we have 28 events, and we have a lot of young events, and as a team this year we will raise about $1.6 million. We’re seeing entire school districts come on board, and they have brought the communities on board in an incredible way.”