Alyssa Sandler Sugg, 27, doesn’t remember much about the first time she was diagnosed with leukemia at age 3. She remembers vividly, however, what it felt like when the cancer returned at age 9. So much so, that the Landrum Middle School special needs teacher credits her battle with cancer with inspiring her to become a teacher.
“I was in middle school when I was finishing my treatments and I was having difficulties in school because of some of the effects,” she said. “It made me want to work with special needs children.”Today, the newly married Sugg says that having cancer was in some ways a blessing. “You meet so many wonderful people and make so many special connections because of it,” she said.
Those connections were evident Saturday, as more than 120 volunteers participated in the Ponte Vedra Relay for Life fundraiser for cancer research and treatment. Though thunderstorms delayed the start of this year’s event, the downpours didn’t dampen the spirits of the volunteers and cancer survivors who showed up and walked to fight cancer.
Held at Ponte Vedra High School, this year’s Relay for Life opening ceremonies began at 3 p.m. Before the first walkers began their paces, however, the event had already exceeded last year’s fundraising goal. Lynn Nelson, the event’s lead coordinator, said that $13,000 had already been raised as the event was getting underway. That figure was expected to rise, she added, thanks to fundraising containers placed at local Gate gas stations and ongoing fundraisers that will occur through August. One such event, she noted, will occur May 18 at Bogey Grille.
“The restaurant is doing a special promotion called ‘Stick a Fork in Cancer,’” Nelson said. “On that day, they’ll donate 10 percent of all sales from 5 p.m. until closing.”
Saturday’s Relay for Life featured a full slate of entertainment, including performances by local dance troupes and concerts by local singer/songwriters. The focus, however, remained squarely on fighting cancer, and following the opening ceremonies the official relay portion of the event began with a “Survivor’s Lap,” as Sugg and four other local cancer survivors took a victory lap around the high school’s courtyard to the applause of volunteers. Survivor Richard Ulmer – a retired teacher who now substitutes regularly at Ponte Vedra High School – smiled and jokingly told the cheering students, “If I see you smoking, you’re swallowing it!”
“Events like this are special to me, because this is what’s going to cure cancer,” Ulmer said. “I volunteer for the American Cancer Society and the Mayo Clinic, and many of us believe that we will see a cure for cancer…In my opinion, getting cancer was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
Bob McKeefrey, a prostate cancer survivor and member of the event’s leadership team, agreed.
“Having cancer gives you a whole new appreciation for life,” said McKeefrey, whose company, Medcruiters, was a sponsor of this year’s Relay for Life.
Martine Gelb, 16, has been participating in Relay for Life events for nearly her entire life.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 3 years old – and I’ve been a captain since I was 12,” the Ponte Vedra High School sophomore said. “I participated with my family when we lived in New Hampshire, and then my dad got cancer so we said, ‘Let’s keep doing this.’”
For this year’s event, Gelb was team captain of a group of students representing PVHS’s Gay/Straight Alliance.
“I think events like these are important because they not only bring awareness of the need for cancer research, but also of the huge impact cancer has on the lives of all the people around that person,” said team member Adam Snowden, 17. “When we come together and see all the support that’s out there, I think it’s very encouraging for people fighting cancer to know the monumental impact that they have on us.”