For Wess Pravecek, the circle – more appropriately, the relay – that had once been broken is now whole again.
Sunday afternoon, with scores of local citizens logging laps on the track in the DakotaDome, Wess, after taking a bite from a hot dog she had purchased from a food vendor – took time for a breather.
Wess, in the role as community chairperson, and Sarah Olson, chairperson of the USD Chapter of Colleges Against Cancer, had been working diligently for weeks leading up to that afternoon, leading a group of volunteers and making all of the necessary arrangements to make that day's annual Clay County Relay For Life event a success.
The afternoon marked Wess' return to a more significant role in the event designed to raise funds to battle cancer.
"I had been a procrastinator. I had always thought I wanted to be involved with the American Cancer Society in some way because cancer has been a part of my family for a long time. My maternal grandmother died of cancer, my aunt, my godmother, died of cancer, and my dad died of cancer. So, I always thought, 'How could I get involved?'"
Wes first discovered the answer to that question when she and Janet Mount, another woman from Vermillion, walked in one of the first Relay for Life events held in the community, sponsored by a recreation class at The University of South Dakota.
"The community wasn't involved in the event very much at that time … and as we walked that day, Janet and I said to each other that this event needs to be even bigger. So, we approached the Clay County American Cancer Society board, and told them we'd like to chair it the following year," Pravecek said.
Her involvement stayed strong in the annual event for a five-year period. "And, we just took a break from it for a little while," she said. "But there was interest from a new USD student group called Colleges Against Cancer, and that organization wanted to get involved in the relay. Janet got involved in it, and then two years ago, I became involved again."
The American Cancer Society Relay For Life is held in communities not only in the United States, but across the globe, as a way to celebrate the lives of people who have battled cancer, remember loved ones lost, and fight back against the disease.
The relay began in 1985 when Dr. Gordy Klatt, a colorectal surgeon in Tacoma, WA, ran and walked around a track for 24 hours to raise money for the American Cancer Society. Since then, it has grown from a single man's passion to fight cancer into the world's largest movement to end the disease. Each year, more than 3.5 million people in 5,000 communities in the United States, along with additional communities in 20 other countries, gather to take part in this global event and raise funds and awareness to save lives from cancer.
Wess said the local Colleges Against Cancer chapter and the Clay County unit of the American Cancer Society have proven to be an effective team.
"We think it's a good fit because with their involvement on campus, and our connections as community people, that can really be beneficial," she said. "We think it's just the best partnership – we're one big community, and we needed both organizations together to prove what a remarkable thing it can be when we all work together."
Participants in the relay raise funds for the American Cancer Society in a number of ways, from a small $10 admission fee, to taking pledges for the number of laps they walked in the Dome that day.
"If someone wants to do additional fundraising, they can – a business, for example, can sponsor a casual Friday, where employees pay a certain amount to be able to wear blue jeans to work," Wess said. "Individuals can hit up family members for donations. So, we've seen some real creative ways for making money.
The American Cancer Society also receives funds from the event from corporate sponsors who provide direct or in-kind contributions.
"That helps us a ton," she said. "The costs of those services provided by in-kind contributions then don't come off the top of the money we raise. This is where everyone working together in our communities gets the word out, brings people in, and whether they come in and spend the whole day, or they come in and maybe just walk the survivor lap, it is still a way that they are participating in some fashion.
Sunday's relay began with a survivors lap – an inspirational time when survivors are invited to circle the track together. Caregivers were also recognized at Sunday's Relay For Life for the time, love, and support they offer to friends and family who face cancer.
The survivors were given a paper link before the event's start for every year they have survived cancer. The links formed large paper necklaces worn by each survivor during the survivors lap. When the lap was complete, all of the chains were linked together and draped along a wall of the DakotaDome to serve as a visual representation of the time people have enjoyed their lives here after successfully battling cancer.
"It really reminds you of all of the extra years these people have been able to live because of research and medical advances and early detection, and steps like that," Wess said.
A large can filled with beads also drew walkers' constant attention Sunday. Each participant collected a bead each time they completed a lap; the walkers then could place them on a string as a physical representation of the number of laps completed that day.
"Everyone should be really proud of just being here today," she said, taking time to watch as groups of walkers of all ages passed by. "It's a celebration. It's all about recognition and participation – however people want to be a part of it," she said.
The DakotaDome track was lined with paper luminiarias, each one hand-crafted by a family member or friend to honor someone who has died of cancer.
Among the many luminarias along the track was one placed by Wess in honor of her father.
"As you walk around, you see people wearing purple shirts – they are the survivors – and you see all of these luminarias, with names written on them to honor those who didn't survive. It's wonderful. It just makes you feel good.
"I'm just really tickled with all of the people who are here today, and the new people I get to meet every year," Wess said. "Many of these people – I see their faces every day, but I see them in a completely different way once they've been here, whether they are a survivor or a community person who has felt the need to be part of this celebration."