It was 2003, and Orlovsky worked for the American Cancer Society. Her job was to build up Relay for Life events, hosted by local communities and schools throughout the country, within Queens.
A Maspeth native and lifelong resident, Orlovsky organized the inaugural event at Juniper Valley Park working with local leaders.
But on the day of Relay for Life, it was pouring. Orlovsky recalled sitting in her car with her then-boyfriend, whom later became her husband, crying.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, all this money and now nobody’s going to come,” she said.
Her husband, who has since passed away, comforted her inside the car. Then he jumped out and started setting up a tent. After that, an amazing thing happened, Orlovsky said.
“People started coming out in the rain and setting up tents,” she said.
The first Relay for Life in Middle Village drew a small crowd, but it was an event to remember. Orlovsky said they had eight cancer survivors, and they participated in the ceremonial first “survivor’s lap” around the track.
One of those survivors was Denise Pentony, who was also that year’s survivor speaker. Last Tuesday, February 6, marked the 20th anniversary of her diagnosis of hodgkin’s lymphoma.
During the first Relay for Life, five years after she beat her cancer, she stood on stage to tell her story.
“I remember standing on stage, not being able to speak,” she said. “My team was like, ‘Just look at me, look at us.’”
Pentony also recalled walking the survivor's lap. She choked up retelling what she felt at that moment.
“There is no feeling [like] when you are a cancer survivor and you’re walking around that track and you have that purple shirt on,” she said. “You’re waving to everybody and they’re all cheering you on.
“Like you’re a princess with a tiara,” Pentony added. “You didn’t do anything special, you’re a regular person.”
Despite the torrential downpour, Relay for Life was a success. Sixteen years later, Pentony, Orlovsky and four of the 25 original teams that participated are still helping to plan the annual event.
Last Tuesday at O’Neill’s Restaurant, nearly 100 community members attended a kickoff event for this year's Relay for Life. They spoke about the history of the event, thanked sponsors, and spotlighted cancer survivors.
The committee members leading the planning also discussed their goals for this year’s celebration. Last year, on the 15th anniversary, the Middle Village Relay for Life raised more than $245,000. They had 73 teams and welcomed 185 survivors.
This year, they’re raising the bar even higher. Their goal is to raise $220,000 and gather 95 teams and 200 survivors.
Carol Palacio, staff partner at the American Cancer Society who has helped organized this event for three years, said it may be tough to beat last year’s record-setting results, but she believes it can happen.
“This year, we can’t go back, we have to keep going,” she said. “I know this group of people can make it.”
Palacio became involved with ACS after she had been a caregiver for her father. He stayed at the Hope Lodge, the organization’s free hotel for cancer patients. She has been participating in Relay for Life events ever since.
After two years helping organize the event at other locations, Palacio started planning the Middle Village Relay. She has since met many good friends.
“This community of Relayers, they are there for each other, for their families,” she said. “They know what is happening, if somebody is going through something, they all step in to help.”
While last year’s event was noteworthy, it was also tough for many of the original organizers. One of the founders of Middle Village Relay For Life, Bernie Helldorfer, passed away in December 2016 after a bout with cancer.
After he was diagnosed with cancer a few years before, Palacio said members of the planning committee worked together to give him rides to his treatments. Before he passed away, Palacio also recalled the committee gathering outside his house near Christmastime to sing carols.
“Everybody was outside in the cold, and he was inside but he could hear us in his bed,” she said. “We all went to his house to sing to him, and to light up these white luminaria bags in his front yard.
“This is a type of community that moves you and inspires you to do this work,” she added.
Palacio learned about Relay for Life in 2007, when she was a student at New York University. She relayed for her brother, who had passed away. Later in her career, Palacio decided to join ACS for her father, who passed away two years ago.
“I keep relaying now for the other people going through it here, and the other caregivers that have gone through it,” she said. “I keep doing it not only for my brother and father and grandmother, I do it for the people who are motivating me to keep going.”
Collectively, the planning committee announced that this year’s theme will be Disney. Participants can wear costumes for their opening lap, and can also decorate their tents at Juniper Valley Park.
The 2018 survivor speaker will be Sharon Robinson, who became involved with Middle Village Relay for Life last year. She saw an online post about a Relay event at St. John’s University, but when she went to the meeting, she realized that was meant more for students on campus.
The students referred her to the Middle Village event because it was more family-oriented.
“So I decided to come over, and I’m glad I did. It was the best decision,” she said. “It was an amazing experience.”
Robinson said she stayed until 2 a.m. Her team members walked with her, and enjoyed the event as well. The Queens Village resident said she was amazed by the luminaria ceremony, where luminaria bags and candles are lit up in remembrance of those whose lives were affected by cancer. The ceremony takes place at night, when the light shines brightest.
Robinson survived colon cancer, which she was diagnosed with in January 2013, and then breast cancer, which was diagnosed with six months later.
“I’ve gone through the struggle of being a survivor, being a cancer patient, going to chemotherapy, radiation sessions,” she said. “I wanted to give back and and help fundraise to find a cure for this dreadful disease.”
In addition to speaking about the medical aspect of cancer, Robinson said she will speak about how faith guided her through her journey.
“You have to have faith to believe that you can overcome whatever it is you’re dealing with, cancer or anything else,” she said.
Whether it’s their second year with Relay for Life or their 16th, the participants and organizers expressed joy in the sense of community they have fostered. Orlovsky said even though she doesn’t work for ACS anymore, she can’t imagine missing Relay for Life.
She encouraged all of her fellow community members, including local schools, to get involved because everyone has “been touched by cancer.”
“There’s something so magical about this event,” she said. “Even though I’ve lost a number of family members, when you see the survivors, they give you hope. Hope that a cure can be found.
“They’re our reason to relay. It may have been too late for my family members, but it’s not too late for somebody else,” Orlovsky added. “I’ll relay till I die. It’s in my heart.”