By Jim Sullivan
---- — AMESBURY — An estimated 1,500 walkers from the New England region — and some from a galaxy far, far away — walked around the track at Landry Stadium over the course of 18 hours on Saturday and Sunday during the 11th annual American Cancer Society Relay for Life.
“Everyone has a reason for being here,” event chairwoman Donna Eldredge said. “For some people it is private, for some it is very public. We actually had a committee member, Althea Cynewski, who relayed with us for ten years and passed away in January. So, this year, the entire committee is relaying for Althea, because, more than anything, we wish she were here.”
Currently in her tenth year as chairwoman, Eldredge said the relay, which kicked off Saturday at 2 p.m. and continued until 8 a.m. on Sunday, was striving to reach a fundraising goal of $55,000 and was on track for its lifetime goal of $900,000.
“This has grown tremendously from the first year when we may have only had 15 teams,” Eldredge said. “We’ve seen a lot of people go through their battle with cancer and now they are survivors. It’s been a wonderful experience. We meet a lot of fantastic people.”
Eldredge, who lost her mother to cancer more than 10 years ago, was joined by her five children on the track, along with the 28 other teams as each hour, a new lap — each with a different theme — began. While musical acts played in the middle of the stadium, a silent auction and a raffle were held.
The centerpiece of the evening was the lighting of hundreds of paper lantern luminarias, each with the name of either a cancer victim of survivor written on them.
“That is really our signature event,” Eldredge said. “It’s very moving and emotional, and kind of reminds us of why we’re here.”
Eldredge’s brother, Amesbury Police crime prevention officer Thomas Hanshaw marshaled to the event the Star Wars 501st New England Garrison, a costuming organization focusing on Star Wars characters. The group spends 52 weeks out of the year attending charitable events.
This group of the dark side of the Force characters drew a crowd in Amesbury this weekend.
Member, Krista Carmichael, who came to Amesbury from the Death Star via Waltham, was doing laps as a Stormtrooper.
“My husband calls this, ‘Sweating to the Empire,’” Carmichael said with a laugh. “It’s a great workout program to benefit everyone. And I would say that Darth Vader right now is about as hot as (fictional planet) Tatooine.”
Inside the Vader costume was Carmichael’s husband, Sean.
“Inside all the costumes, kids have one of two reactions,” said Sean Carmichael. “They either run up and hug you, or they are terrified and five minutes later are mad that they are leaving because they still want to hang out with us. Adults seem to be more afraid of us than kids. I’ve had grown men and women cower and run away.”
Amesbury High School junior, Lydia Mercier was relaying with her school’s newspaper, the AHS Weekly.
“It’s a good way to give back to our community, it’s a good cause,” she said. “It’s a great thing that everyone can do. It’s really fun.”
Mercier’s fellow high school classmate, Antonio Gonzalez, was in the middle of his many laps.
“It’s awesome here,” Gonzalez said. “My friend is a ten-year survivor of brain cancer. Her relay was a few weeks ago. I wasn’t able to make that but I was able to make this one.”
Kate Donlin of Newburyport belonged to the team the “Golfing Grandfathers” in honor of her father and stepfather who both lost their battle to cancer.
“It’s a great day,” Donlin said. “We’ve done the Jimmy Fund fundraiser before but this one is really kid-friendly. They can run, they can sit and it’s nice that it is in our backyard.”
Ruth Genova was participating with fellow members of the Amesbury Republicans. “We had a goal of $1,000 and we’re probably going to meet that and surpass it by about $700,” Genova said. “This is the first time that we have tried this and we are very, very pleased. We baked cookies and things. We have some gifts for the kids and are showing our patriotism.”
Genova and her fellow Republicans were walking in memory of their former chairman, Richard Newton who lost his battle with the disease.
“Cancer doesn’t stay on either side of the aisle,” Genova said.
“This event has a combination of remembering people that we have lost, supporting people who are still fighting cancer and hopefully doing some steps to prevent cancer in the future,” Hanshaw said. “This event today doesn’t stop. We keep going, we keep fighting.”