Last year, more than 700 students, cancer survivors and community members gathered for the annual signature event to celebrate life and show their support for the fight against cancer. Little did participants know that it would be one of the last gatherings on campus before the university went fully remote due to the global pandemic.
Fast forward to 2021 and FIU is the first in the nation this year to participate in Relay for Life; the national event raises funds to support the American Cancer Society. Organized by a student committee under the guidance of the Center for Leadership and Service, FIU’s Relay for Life has raised more than $1 million for breakthrough research since it began 16 years ago.
“This year’s Relay for Life has been organized by an exceptional group of student leaders,” said Elizabeth Bejar, senior vice president for Academic and Student Affairs. “All around the country, every organization has been challenged and our student leaders have risen to the occasion.”
Determined to come together to help find a cure for cancer, student ambassadors organized a hybrid version of FIU Relay for Life to meet social distancing restrictions as a result of COVID-19. To ensure everyone’s safety, participants were required to preregister online, wear face masks and complete the university’s P3 app before entering the campus.
More than 150 individuals gathered in-person in LOT 9 at FIU’s MMC, where they had the option to partake in the ceremony from socially distanced sitting pods or the comfort of their vehicles by tuning into the live stream on 104.5 FM. The event offered a mixture of speakers who joined the festivities both live and via zoom.
Showcasing the theme, Kicking Cancer to Infinity and Beyond, activities included virtual entertainers, a marketplace featuring socially distant fundraising games and concession sales, as well as, lighting of luminarias to remember loved ones lost.
Unlike previous years, where individuals camped in front of the Ryder Business Building and took turns on the relay track, participants of FIU Relay 2021 joined via a caravan while a few others joined by foot.
Similarly, the event’s popular Beautiful Lengths and Shave-A-Thon ceremonies had a different flair. This year, participants cut their hair via Zoom and donated their locks to be turned into real-hair wigs distributed to cancer patients, at no charge. Meanwhile, others shaved their heads in solidarity with cancer patients and survivors. Considered the second leading cause of death in the United States, cancer continues to impact the lives of many.
“I understand the feeling of being scared and losing someone you love, firsthand and all too well,” said Samantha Rodriguez, one of FIU Relay for Life student organizers.
Rodriguez’s 57-year-old grandmother, a woman she called mom developed a rare mutation of lung cancer despite never having smoked a day in her life. Within 11 months of diagnosis, the cancer metastasized to her throat and brain and claimed her life in October 2020.
To Rodriguez’s surprise, while coping with the loss of her grandmother, she was unexpectedly diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the beginning of this year.
“I was fortunate to have had early detection and surgery without any complications,” says Rodriguez, who has made it a personal mission to raise cancer awareness. “It can show up in many ways without notice or reason.”
Altogether, 30 teams consisting of more than 340 registered online participants joined several months of fundraising efforts and raised $49,300. The proceeds collected during FIU Relay for Life will provide free services for patients and their caregivers, including hotel stays, car rides to cancer treatments, and support from the American Cancer Society 24/7 helpline.
“Because of your efforts today, we’re able to save lives tomorrow,” said Erica Sanchez, American Cancer Society Senior Development Manager.