A friend of mine from Rochester questioned me the other day about the Fillmore County Relay for Life after reading about the event, asking how it was possible that this worthy cause raised more than $136,000. After all, Fillmore County doesn’t have a lot of population — there are just over 8,000 households — and it doesn’t have a lot of wealth — the median household income is well below the average in Minnesota.
I told her some generalities, noting the people here are very generous and really respond to charitable causes. That’s true, but there is something more to this phenomenal outpouring of support.
For one thing, there was no one wealthy benefactor to bump up the amount. The money raised was through personal contact with the top individual raising just slightly over $3,000.
People here really respond to other people — and their stories — more than causes. Cancer has touched so many people that there are plenty of stories to tell and at least one of those stories has touched nearly everyone in the county.
The Relay for Life on July 11 had 29 teams and 483 participants. Each one of those 483 participants had a different reason for taking the time to spend a night walking in Harmony, but they all had the same goal — to support cancer survivors through their actions and money.
Our newspapers couldn’t tell every story, but we did track down a few participants to get their perspective.
Katlyn Peterson of Lanesboro and her brother, Erik, have spent summers devoting time to Shooting Stars, a relay team founded in 1997 by their mother, Diane Peterson, since Katlyn was 5 years old. She officially joined the team in 2003 and Erik in 2005.
Diane was diagnosed with stage four metastatic inflammatory breast cancer in 1997 at 30 years old. In 1999, she delivered the opening speech and carried the banner in the Survivor’s Lap at the Relay for Life. She lost her battle to cancer in 2000, weeks before the Relay was held in Lanesboro, where she lived with her family.
Katlyn, now a college graduate, still participates in the Relay.
“Year after year, I love being able to continue what my mom started, alongside my families and friends,” she said.
Mabel resident Sandra Benson started her team, Sole Train, in 2007 when the Relay for Life was in Mabel. She just thought it would be fun to have a team, never thinking cancer would have a major impact on her life.
Five years later, she had her life turned around by cancer when her husband, Randy Benson, and sister, Arlene Suttlemyer, both died from cancer about two months apart from each other.
Now, she says Relay for Life is part of the healing process.
Marilyn Schreier of Preston was part of a team before deciding to get her own team, Major Heroes, about four years ago.
“I Relay for my mom, who died from kidney and colon cancer,” she said. “I also lost a sister-in-law to cancer. My dad is a cancer survivor. The team members also have friends and family affected.”
Judy Frank, from the Wykoff-Cherry Grove area, started a team, Franks and Then Some, six years ago when the event was in Wykoff. The motivation, like so many others, was because they had family members, including the fathers of her and her husband, who have died from cancer.
One of the newcomers is Deb Jorgenson of Chatfield, who formed Chatty Walkers, and found 17 people to participate on the team. Her father also died from cancer as have several relatives.
Another team spans generations. Cancer survivor Loretta Ascheman of Spring Valley has been involved in the Relay for many years. Her daughter, Melissa Davis, was diagnosed with cancer last year. Their team is now Team Melissa Spring Valley Moonlighters.
A family in Greenleafton found a unique way to contribute. Liz Storlie and her family planted a vegetable garden to use as a fundraiser. They sell the produce and give the proceeds to the Relay for Life.
The Relay has special meaning for her because her grandmother died of cancer many years ago and her uncle has cancer.
“I had not really realized how high the numbers are of people with cancer, but it feels good to know we are doing something good,” she said. “If I could live in the world and give all my stuff away, I would.”
During the Survivor Tea, Harmony native and cancer survivor Nathan Osmonson shared his story and what he had learned from his journey with cancer.
“I feel that more importantly, even than my journey, is to share the fact that it’s OK to feel afraid, or angry, or sad or whatever emotions overcome you as the cancer patient or the family and friends of a cancer patient,” he said. “Let yourself feel what you need to feel about the things you can’t control and then do what you can about the parts of the life you do have control of.”
The numbers show people are doing what they can to support this event. Besides participating in the Relay, local residents could purchase luminarias in honor or memory of a loved one to support the event. About 2,300 of them lined the walking path in Harmony the night of the event.
Those 2,300 symbolic candles represent real people who touched lives of other people throughout the county and beyond. Each one had a unique story that led to action toward a common goal.
Just as the luminarias in honor or memory of cancer victims lit up Harmony on July 11, the stories of the people involved illuminate how a small county of modest means can raise such a phenomenal amount of money.