Local Walkers Gear Up for Annual Relay for Life

Though Bonnie Roberts spends all her working hours with seniors, she has a soft spot for children. Several years ago, she was dismayed when two friends’ children, one 2 years old and one 6 years old, were diagnosed with cancer. Another person, a business colleague, died from the disease and left two children, Roberts said.

Roberts, owner of the Londonderry-based Home Helpers, will be lacing up her sneakers for the ninth time this weekend as she co-chairs the annual Relay for Life for Greater Derry and Londonderry at the Pinkerton Academy track. Hundreds of area residents will join her to walk laps in the dusk-to-day event that raises funds for the American Cancer Society, funds that stay in the community.

The Relay starts at 6 p.m. Friday, June 21. Roberts is co-chairing the event with Kerry Ouellette of Brownell Insurance in Londonderry. She was introduced to Relay For Life by a friend, the appropriately-named Bonnie McSpiritt, who invited Roberts to her first Relay. “I was hooked,” Roberts said. By the next year the two children had been diagnosed, and she determined to “get more involved and fight back.”

Roberts has since served as entertainment chairman for the event (two stints), director of corporate sponsorship, and became co-chair last year. Roberts likes the event because it encompasses all cancers, she said. “Breast cancer gets a lot of press, but there are so many others,” she said. The Relay has three components, she said: Celebration, honoring survivors; Remembrance, honoring those who lost the battle; and Fighting Back. “We want to get some semblance of power over the disease,” she said.

Roberts, who is also a member of the Londonderry Elder Affairs Committee, said there are many causes for a businessperson to get involved with. But she chose the American Cancer Society as one of hers for several reasons. “Most of the money we raise goes back to the community,” she said, noting that the American Cancer Society (ACS) has a 79 cent on the dollar return to the local area. The 21 percent that goes to the infrastructure also comes back to the community, though in a less-direct way, she pointed out. There’s an extensive Web site with information, including a 24-7 cancer hotline.

“When do we have questions?” Roberts asked rhetorically. “Not necessarily during business hours.”
The ACS also contributes to anti-cancer research, she said, and is involved in legislation and education initiatives. “We couldn’t,” she said, “have a successful Relay without staff support.”

The committee held a kick-off in January, when teams were formed, and the teams have been raising money ever since, she said. There’s a “great Web site” just for Relay teams, with templates and other material to make fund-raising easier.

Roberts and past co-chairs have built the Derry/Londonderry Relay into a major event. “It’s been the largest Relay in New Hampshire for the last four years,” she said, the largest of 23 Relays. It also ranks 19th out of the 236 Relays in New England, she said.

“We think this is due to the generosity and spirit of our community,” Roberts said. Stacy Bruzzese, director of the Greater Derry Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, will be walking for the first time with the Derry/Londonderry group, though she has done the Salem event. “It’s fun,” Bruzzese said. “It’s uplifting, moving, really a wonderful experience.”

Some of the survivors feel overwhelmed, Bruzzese added, “and they get very emotional.” Tears flow on the Luminaria Lap, a once-around-the-track dedicated to those who lost the battle. “You do a lap in the dark, with luminarias,” Bruzzese said.

It’s also a team-building and relationship-building experience for the walkers, Bruzzese added. Last year she did 20 miles, “pretty much nonstop,” around the track. Bruzzese has assembled a team including her assistant, Kristin Eustis; Bernie Parnell; Gail, Jonathan and Jessie Migliozzi; Monica Doble;, Kelly Gilbert and even the residents of Windham Terrace Assisted Living.

Bruzzese will be there from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. She lost her mother to cancer three years ago and reiterated the fact that, “This is an event for all cancers, and the American Cancer Society’s biggest fund-raiser.”
The Derry/Londonderry event has done its share, with 979 registered participants last year and a net gain of $199,000.

Roberts also hosted 164 survivors last year, and hopes to have more this year, even if they register at the last minute. The Amphora Restaurant at Hood Commons is catering the Survivor Dinner, a special event for survivors and one caregiver that is offered after the “survivor lap,” she said. “The first lap is always the survivors, then the caregiver joins in, and then they go inside for the dinner,” Roberts explained.

This year Roberts and her committee are shooting for $223,000, and had at press time $84,492 in on-line donations, though Roberts emphasized that there could be other donations not yet recorded. She has 91 teams on the books, 1,013 walkers and 175 survivors at press time. She is determined to reach the $223,000, noting,” Goals are lofty for a reason.”

Last-minute team registrations and survivors are still being accepted, with corporate sponsorships starting at $100. For more information, call Roberts at 845-3333 or visit RelayForLife.org/derryandlondonderrynh.

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