The Relay for Life Survivor Dinner is not a new event, but two twenty-somethings in Dardanelle are taking a new spin on it this year. The dinner will be held at the Dardanelle Community Center on April 24 from 6:30-8 p.m. and is open to the public.
Taylor Gamez, Arkansas Tech University graduate, and Rashad Woods, University of Central Arkansas graduate, have been planning a gala-type dinner to honor cancer survivors and their caregivers in Pope, Yell and Conway Counties. Woods said that he has talked to survivors in the area who have said they have not felt represented the best for what they’ve gone through, and he wanted to change that.
“If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right, do it big and set the bar for years to come,” Woods said. “This is a battle a lot of people didn’t win. A lot of people have lost a lot and done a lot to say they’re a true survivor, so we want to honor them in any way we can.”
The Pope and Yell County Relay for Life chapter adopted Conway County last year, but did not get more funding. Despite the setback, Gamez and Woods said they decided to do as much as they possibly could.
Woods came up with “100 For The 100,” where 100 businesses and individuals in the area can donate $100 to the American Cancer Society. His idea will bring in $10,000 in total.
“People are very supportive of the cause just because of the name ‘Relay’,” Gamez said. “They’ve been absent for so long in this area that people are like, ‘Oh my gosh, yes, we want to be in on this.’”
10-year prostate cancer survivor Representative Fred Allen will be speaking, and Woods said that other state legislators will be attending along with the CEO for the American Cancer Society.
At the Survivor Dinner, there will be live music and a photo booth. Gamez said that there will be door prizes and that every person who attends will go home with something. While there is no dress code, Woods encourages guests to wear their “Sunday’s best.”
“If you come in pajama pants, I’ll be excited to see you, simple as that,” Woods said. “But when you dress up a little bit, it’s an honor, so it’s going to set the tone for the night.”
Woods said he hopes in the future to be able to partner up with local barber shops, salons and boutiques to make survivors’ experiences even better.
Jennifer Lackie, event colead, said that 186 survivors have been invited and 150 are planning to attend. They are also opening the dinner up to the public so they can see what they’re donating to. Survivors and their caregivers get in for free, and the public can buy tickets for $10.
“My hope is that we draw a bigger crowd where our survivors get to feel like they’re honored;they get to see that we put effort into this event to make them feel special, and that they will then go out and speak of Relay and spread information and knowledge about Relay and American Cancer Society,” Lackie said. “In turn, there could be someone who doesn’t know about American Cancer Society and then they can use one of their services to help them get through their treatments. I hope we are bursting at the seams because I want everyone to come and experience it.”
Gamez originally wasn’t a part of the Relay for Life team. Woods said that he had a meeting and lost his keys, which are still lost to this day, so he asked Gamez to drive him. Instead of waiting in the car, Gamez joined him at the meeting. They asked her if she wanted to be Rashad’s assistant and she didn’t hesitate.
“Just from a story of me losing my keys, all of this has happened,” Woods said.
When Gamez was 11, her great grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. Her family packed up their 2,000-squarefoot house in six days, and they moved to Arkansas.
“She was a go-getter,” Gamez said. “The one year we went to the Relay, they gave her a purple wrap for her head and a wheelchair so she could do the lap. I remember she pushed her wheelchair. She refused to sit in it or let anybody push her. It’s one of the few photos I have of her still. It’s still hanging up on my wall.”
Gamez said that Relay for Life helped her family through the process.
“Even if it was just a walk in the park or ‘you can do this,’ it meant a huge deal for my life and for my family,” Gamez said. “That’s why I jumped right on this when Rashad said ‘Relay for Life.’”
Along with Gamez’s experience, Lackie’s father is a survivor and her uncle passed away, and multiple people in Woods’ family have had cancer.
“You hear the old adage ‘everybody knows somebody who has been affected by cancer,’ and it’s really true,” Lackie said.
This adage especially seems to apply to Marie Norris of Dardanelle. In 2011, Norris’ husband was diagnosed with colon cancer. Since then, they have been involved with Relay for Life and have attended the Survivor Dinner every year.
For the first two years, Norris attended as a caregiver. The third year, she was a survivor herself.
“I thought I had myself prepared for what I was going to find out, but when you hear the diagnosis that it’s cancer— it’s quite a shock,” Norris said.
She and her husband have had a lot of similar medical issues, including knee replacements and heart problems.
“It was kind of ironic that he got cancer and then two years later I got it,” she said. “I always tease him and say, ‘I really didn’t think that was contagious’.”
“We have more than tested that vow ‘in sickness and in health’,” Norris said. “We’ve always been there for one another, which I think is important.”
Norris said she plans on attending this year and is excited.
“It sounds like it’s really going to be awesome,” Norris said. “They’ve put a lot of work into it.”
In the past, the Survivor Dinners have been held in Pope County. Gamez said that she is glad that it is in Yell County this year.
“It will definitely shed light to the area Relay chapters because it’s not been a big deal,” Gamez said. “Having it in Dardanelle will be a highlight for the surrounding area. Dardanelle doesn’t host a lot of things that have to do with Pope and Conway County, but people are coming in from both, so they’re obviously going to notice the community.”
In the future, Woods and Gamez hope the Survivor Dinner can be in Conway County so that all communities are given recognition.
For more information, visit Relay For Life of Pope/ Yell/Conway Counties, Ark. on Facebook.