Relay walkers brave storm to raise funds to fight cancer

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Tue., Jun. 14, 2011
Team members intent on eradicating cancer march as a group in the Relay for Life June 11 at Dodd Stadium. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Team members intent on eradicating cancer march as a group in the Relay for Life June 11 at Dodd Stadium. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

The weather was a bit unkind to walkers in the annual Relay for Life of Southeast Connecticut June 11-12 – but the disease they were working to eliminate is even more unkind.

Relay Co-Chair Dawn Koonce wore a wristband that said “Cancer sucks,” and she said that pretty well sums up her feelings.

“I lost my dad to cancer in ’08. My dad died 48 days after his diagnosis,” Koonce said. “That’s unacceptable in my eyes. Rather than getting angry or losing myself in pain, I do this.”

“This” was a marathon walk for the American Cancer Society around the outside track at Dodd Stadium, along with more than 500 other participants, throughout the better part of 24 hours. “Cancer never sleeps,” Koonce said. “All of us here, at some point, have been touched by cancer somehow.”

Teams of walkers took turns rounding the track, many of them collecting a bead at the end of each lap to keep track of the miles they’d logged. “Every team has at least one person walking on the track all day and all night,” said Koonce.

Money from the individual team fundraisers – along with money pledged to relay walkers – was earmarked for the American Cancer Society. Koonce said that more than $80,000 had been raised by the end of the weekend. She noted, though, that later fund-raising efforts by individual teams could very well put the Relay over its $85,000 goal by the end of its fiscal year in August.

This year’s tally was a considerable increase over last year’s $67,000, said Koonce.

Blessedly for the walkers, the unseasonable heat had cooled off by Saturday’s event, but the overnight laps were interrupted by thunderstorms that sent relay participants scurrying under the stadium stands.

This was the relay’s first year at Dodd Stadium, after being hosted initially by Montville High School and later by Norwich Free Academy. “The Connecticut Tigers have been so generous, so amazing,” Koonce said.

Many walkers shared their stories of how cancer had touched their lives. Kathy Hanson was one of the more than 100 walkers who proudly sported a purple t-shirt, marking her as a cancer survivor. She battled breast cancer successfully 19 years ago.

“I was on the first committee for the relay 16 years ago,” she said. “I’ve done this for a lot of years. My grandchildren were brought up on the relay.”

Hanson’s team, the Happy Chappys, was named in honor of her father, who died of cancer 24 years ago. “My husband is now a seven-month survivor of cancer of the small intestine,” she said. “My mom is also a cancer survivor.”

The Sparkling Wizards team sold “lap tracker” necklace cords and multicolored beads – each color representing a different form of cancer – as part of their fundraising effort. Each time walkers passed the brilliantly-colored Wizards tent, they selected a bead from the bowls. White beads marked the first three laps, and then a colored bead marked the fourth, indicating completion of a full mile.

“It makes people walk just a little farther. They want to finish that mile,” said team captain Karen Semmelrock, of Franklin.

The Connecticut Tigers will host another Relay for Life fundraiser at their June 22 game. A percentage of advance-only ticket sales will go to the American Cancer Society. To purchase tickets, contact Koonce at

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