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Journey Back to the Top: Relay For Life of Gwinnett Gears Up for Major Comeback!

For years, Relay For Life of Gwinnett reigned as the largest Relay For Life in the world. Year after year, the local powerhouse would attract thousands of enthusiastic participants and often raise well over $1 million (sometimes over $2 million) toward fighting cancer. Relay For Life of Gwinnett hasn’t just been setting the global standard for community-driven fundraising – it’s been a cherished Gwinnett staple, an indispensable celebration of survivors and a tried-and-true tradition.

But like nearly all other organizations across the world, Relay For Life of Gwinnett has faced unique challenges for the past two years. With a long history of in-person events and reliance on active community engagement at the heart of the organization, the pandemic has made it difficult to fundraise and drive awareness to the same levels as years past.

This year, thanks to the easing of restrictions, fresh updates to the organization’s event model and the community’s eagerness for a return to the normalcy, Relay For Life of Gwinnett is ready for a game-changing comeback. The tone for Gwinnett’s upcoming 2022 Relay is perfectly encapsulated by its chosen theme: “Back to the Future.”

Relay For Life of Gwinnett is going back to in-person for the first time since 2019; back to the shared excitement, hugs and commemoration between cancer fighters, cancer survivors, caregivers and supporters; back to the organization’s original roots. But this year’s most surprising return to tradition is its venue. The Gwinnett County Fairgrounds has long been considered the home of the massive annual event, but in 2022, the event will take place on a high school track – just like Gwinnett’s very first Relay For Life nearly 30 years ago.

Starting its first year back with a more intimate, approachable setting at Lanier High School in Sugar Hill symbolizes Relay For Life of Gwinnett’s renewed mission to engage a new generation of Gwinnettians who haven’t participated before. It’s also an exciting way to give back to likely the greatest reason for the organization’s decades of success: Gwinnett County Public Schools. Avid support, fundraising and organizing by the students, faculty and families across every corner of the world-class school system has been a major driver of the millions raised right within our county.

“It fit perfect for our community, taking the world’s largest Relay back to a high school,” says John Harris, senior development manager at the American Cancer Society. “We needed to update the event and bring it to the 21st century and back to the forefront. In the past, Relay has been known for going 12 hours overnight. And one of the points behind that was ‘cancer doesn’t sleep, so we can’t either.’ Well, it’s 2022. We all know cancer doesn’t sleep, no matter if we went for 48 hours, it’s still not going to sleep.

“So, we felt like, OK, let’s reset, refocus, reenergize and put as much energy and effort into a 6-hour event, hence the 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. [run time] this year. We know that cancer doesn’t sleep, even at 10 p.m. when our event’s over, cancer is going to continue. But we’re not going to stop continuing to raise money.”

Taking place on Saturday, May 7, 2022, the event will live up to its “Back to the Future” theme in yet another way: Marty McFly, Doc Brown and, of course, a DeLorean are set to attend! The Relay For Life of Gwinnett team is incredibly grateful for the return of presenting sponsors Primerica and Northside Hospital, as well as Piedmont Eastside, Camp Gladiator, Sage, Northeast Georgia Medical Center, Blue Bell Ice Cream and Gwinnett County Public Schools’ continued support.

“[GCPS] is an integral part of why Gwinnett Relay has been so amazing,” says Nona Ingham, diversity outreach lead for Relay For Life of Gwinnett, national Relay champion for Ricoh USA and Relay participant since 1994. “Our prior superintendent was such a champion of it, and I am encouraged to see the continued championing by the new school board, the new leadership in Gwinnett and the sheriff as well.”

After skipping the event out of necessity in 2020 and hosting a smaller, socially distanced “drive-thru” Relay in 2021, this return of one of Gwinnett’s most influential events will be a heartwarming homecoming.

“I’m looking forward to having everybody being able to walk the track. That is something that is so symbolic of Relay For Life and how it began,” says Ingham. “Walking around that track and taking turns to share the burden of the fight against cancer, that’s what it’s all about. It’s that visible showing of support that ‘I’m here for you and we’re going to keep doing this.’

“Even though we’re not going to be able to go until dawn [this year], we’re going to be able to see a beautiful sunset and the colors of purple that are going to remind us that another day is coming for those cancer survivors. That they will continue to make leaps and bounds in the fight against cancer as we continue on.”

Though Relay For Life, American Cancer Society and numerous cancer-fighting organizations across the world have been making strides for years, raising greater awareness, engagement and funds toward fighting cancer is more critical than ever. The pandemic complicated every aspect of healthcare, and this was especially apparent for those treating or screening for diseases such as cancer.

“The need is becoming so much bigger,” says Bobbie Menneg, survivor lead at Relay For Life of Gwinnett and founder of Beyond the Ribbon, a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for local cancer patients, providing resources and helping them cover their expenses. “Because of COVID, [people have been missing] screenings, so it looked like cancer diagnoses are going down by 40%. But in reality, they’re going up by 40%. And they’re often later stages of metastatic. So, if you’re metastatic … you will always be on some form of treatment. And the majority of them cannot work, so they’re always going to need help. And they’re often young people too. I know several young moms under 40 that are diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and they have young kids.”

Ingham has also witnessed how the pandemic has uniquely affected cancer survivors.

“Our survivors have not been able to have their support system while they’re fighting cancer and honestly, Relay For Life is essentially a huge support system for so many people,” she says. “When you are struggling through your chemotherapy or your radiation treatments or newly diagnosed, it’s a huge blow both mentally and physically. You’re getting yourself ready for a huge fight ahead of you … and that support system of other people that have gone through the fight, they aren’t getting out and gathering. They’re not celebrating their accomplishments like they [used to].

“Before, you could have somebody come to your treatments with you and sit there and help you through that. And most cancer patients don’t see that anymore because of the pandemic, so it’s really isolated our survivors a lot.”

Evelyn Barella, communications and marketing director at the American Cancer Society (ACS), says that although the pandemic has presented unique challenges, their mission remains the same: to save lives, celebrate lives and lead the fight for a world without cancer.

“In 2022, more than 1.9 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in the United States and more than 609,000 Americans will die from cancer,” Barella says. “We have an opportunity not only to support people facing cancer and their families today, but to help fund the future and take meaningful steps toward our goal to reduce cancer mortality 40% by 2035.

“A generation of research depends on what we do right now. ACS works to be there for scientists at pivotal points in their career – to give them the support they need to keep great research going or to take their ideas from dream to reality. In addition, increasing equal access to care also depends on what we do right now. ACS wants to make sure everyone has the ability to benefit from advances in research, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. All people deserve a fair and just opportunity to prevent, find, treat and survive cancer.”

The Relay For Life of Gwinnett team encourages anyone who has or hasn’t participated in a Relay event before to join in on the celebration, share in bringing hope to those affected by cancer and “return to normal” with them. 

“Every year, when I go back and look at pictures, I see people that I don’t see anymore [since the pandemic],” Bobbie Menneg says. “And I remember their smiles and their hugs and then I see people that have come out on the other side [of cancer] and they’ve just transformed into this new beautiful person. And I just love that part, I love seeing the survivors doing the survivor lap and people clapping and whistling and raising their hands and high fiving as they walk around. So, it’ll be wonderful to do that again.”

Want to get involved? Click here to learn more about Relay For Life of Gwinnett, sign up, start a team and join in their fight against cancer.

Relay For Life of Gwinnett 2022
Saturday, May 7, 2022
4 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Lanier High School
918 Buford Hwy
Sugar Hill, GA