Relay For Life Marlton goes virtual

Nonprofits have not escaped the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but volunteers push forward.

Events occurring in the spring and summer were canceled after Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order barred some in-person functions. That prompted nonprofits to shift their fundraising efforts online to keep volunteers safe while raising money for their causes.

One of the American Cancer Society’s biggest events, Relay For Life, was affected, but volunteers saw it as another challenge to overcome. Alex Basseches of the American Cancer Society Northeast Region explained Relay For Life volunteers were the “guinea pigs” for virtual events. Zoom sessions were held featuring speakers, cancer survivors and activities to keep viewers engaged and the Marlton-based event raised $15,000.

“They were doing a week-long campaign of engaging their peers in the mission of Relay for Life and the American Cancer Society,” Basseches added. “It was volunteers and staffers who condensed a year’s work of planning into one month.”

Debbie Cooney of Shamong is on the Relay For Life committee and was inspired by Mount Laurel volunteers Kelly Cucinotta and Tina Edwards to hold a socially distant luminaria ceremony in her neighborhood. She worked with neighbor Kathy Tyrrell to organize the event in their Stony Creek development.

Cucinotta and Edwards held their event in the Ramblewood development. Janine and Jacky Veasy held one in Marlton. The six women head the Sisters United for a Cure group.

Bags with candles inside were designed by families with the names of those who lost their battles with cancer. Normally, Relay For Life has its ceremony at either nightfall or midnight and attendees silently walk a track, reading the names. Instead, neighbors lined their driveways with the bags on May 27 as others walked along the paths.

“We thought we would only have 10 families sign up, and we ended up having 35 families minimum participating and sold 200 bags; we lined the main street of the neighborhood up and down the court,” Cooney explained. “We had a little ceremony where everyone maintained distances and face coverings.

“Everyone received glow sticks and walked up and down the court to recognize the names on the bags.”

Cooney has been a American Cancer Society volunteer for over 18 years and was once an employee of the organization. She joined after her daughter, Kaitlynn, was diagnosed at the age of 2 with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. Kaitlynn is now 27 and has been free of cancer for nearly two decades.

Basseches said the society held a virtual fundraiser in October, where video game streamers played popular games and viewers donated money for the society. Streaming has become a large platform for gamers as e-sports (electronic sports) grow. The event raised $20,000.

“This whole experience has forced us into learning new systems and technology no matter what age range you are,” Basseches mentioned. “We never really tried doing this before, and the responses were that we should have done this earlier. It will springboard the events we will do when we get back together. I am optimistic it will springboard us.”

Donations have been fewer because of the pandemic’s economic impact, Basseches said. So the society shifted resources to providing information about COVID-19’s impact on cancer patients, creating a virtual network for survivors to share their stories and establishing a 1-800 hotline for families and patients.

Few of the donations support administrative fees or salaries; most are spread across cancer research labs and support patients and their families.

Cooney said in spite of the pandemic, donations for Relay For Life Marlton have resulted from the virtual event via Zoom. Relay For Life Marlton has raised a total of $65,560 this year.

Cooney remarked that 2020 brought a unique challenge to her committee as they became “creative at a distance.” Past challenges with fundraising occurred during extreme weather events and the 2008 recession. Despite those challenges, Cooney learned of the volunteers’ compassionate drive to fight cancer and hopes to continue the event throughout the year.

Information on other events and how to donate can be found by visiting Cancer.org.

“We cannot cancel the fight against cancer,” Cooney reiterated. “There are too many people relying for the resources of the American Cancer Society.”