By Lisa Capobianco
For Jean Rose, being a hero means helping other people. A breast cancer survivor of 12 years, Rose found strength from the friends and family who supported her during her diagnosis.
“Anybody that helps anyone else is a hero,” said Rose. “Helping others is what it’s all about.”
During the 2014 Southington Relay for Life, Rose and her team, “Jean’s Angels,” spread out their tent outside the high school, greeting participants and volunteers who stopped by. The tent was decorated with 43 designs that displayed pictures of Jiminy Cricket from the Walt Disney movie, Pinocchio. Whether the designs pictured Pinocchio or another Disney character, Jiminy Cricket was seen on each one, which featured the slogan, “Be a Hero; Wish Upon a Star.”
“He was Pinocchio’s hero,” said Rose, adding how the cricket helped Pinocchio decide between good and bad decisions. “For the Relay, he’s our hero.”
This year, the theme of the Southington Relay was “You Can Be a Hero.” Joyce McAloon, the chair of the event, said the theme symbolizes the struggle of individuals who have battled cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, cancer is the second most common cause of death in the U.S., and about 1,665,540 new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed this year.
For McAloon, a hero is an individual who never says “no,” an individual who gives his or her all.
“They jump those hurdles,” said McAloon, who is a breast cancer survivor. “When you hear you have cancer, you want that support—when you survive, you know you have reached yourself as a hero.”
“These people who fight this [disease] every day are heroes,” said Liz Howard, a Southington resident who volunteered at the cancer survivor tent.
For Howard, Relay for Life hits home. Both her aunt and grandmother suffered pancreatic cancer, and her sister-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“It is an honor to be here—to support those courageous people who battled cancer every day,” said Howard, who was a first-time volunteer of the event. “This disease is horrific.”
McAloon said the friends and family members of cancer victims also serve as heroes, who are represented during the survivor walk at Relay. During the survivor walk, caregivers of the survivors meet them on the other side. This year over 200 people took part in the walk.
“They’re the extensions of the hero,” said McAloon, noting how the caregivers and family members of cancer victims give them the energy to continue fighting. “They give [cancer victims] the strength.”
For McAloon, members of the community play the role of heroes every time people volunteer, donate, or participate in Relay for Life. Earlier this year, the Southington Relay received an award from the American Cancer Society for being in the top ten nationwide in per capita money raised. Last year, Southington Relay raised more than $136,000 for the American Cancer Society, with 61 registered teams. Currently, Southington Relay has raised over $123,000 (and counting) with over 50 registered teams, said McAloon.
“Our community is the heroes to Relay,” said McAloon. “They become the Relay’s hero.”
Although the Relay celebrated heroes, it also celebrated the memories. Throughout the event, Rose displayed a book for people to sign—a book that displayed over a thousand names of people who lost their battle to cancer. The names in the book were all recognized on a slate, which stated, “In Memory of Our Guardian Angels Above.” The memory slates also honored the life of Jerry Gordan, who served as Rose’s co-captain for nine years at the Southington Relay, as well as other team members of Jean’s Angels.
For Amy Wernicki, participating in Relay for Life served as a way to remember her uncle, who passed away ten years ago from cancer. Wernicki said her uncle was a positive role model who also served as a father figure. At the time of her wedding, Wernicki said her uncle helped organize programs for the ceremony, which she will always remember.
“We’re honoring him,” said Wernicki, adding how she will give back to her uncle’s daughter by helping out in her wedding too. “He was a police officer—I looked up to him from a very young age.”
Wernicki recalled how her uncle (and her father) emphasized the importance of giving back. Today, Wernicki has given back to other service organizations, including the March of Dimes (which her father did too), and the Wounded Warrior Project. Wernicki said she hopes to carry on the lesson of giving back to her own children, one of which is a member of the Giving Back Girls in Southington.
“It’s important for my children to learn that giving back starts at any age—every small piece makes such as big piece to those around you,” said Wernicki, who served as a member of the Foxy’s Paws Team for a Cause, Plantsville Elementary School’s team for Relay.