Whidbey Island’s Relay for Life faces fundraising crunch

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It’s an annual event that is the culmination of months of hard work raising money for a good cause. But organizers of Relay for Life of Whidbey Island say fundraising seems to get harder each year.

The annual Relay for Life will be held from 6 p.m. Friday, June 3, to noon on Saturday, June 4, at North Whidbey Middle School in Oak Harbor.

“The June event is basically what I call a celebration of all of our hard work,” said Karla Sharkey, this year’s sponsorship chair for Relay for Life of Whidbey Island.

The Relay has been held on Whidbey Island since 1983. Sharkey, who has volunteered for the event for 23 years, said the push to raise money for the American Cancer Society is more difficult than ever before because it has to compete with everything else.

“I don’t think it’s because people don’t care, I just think we’re inundated by social media so much and everybody’s asking for donations so much that we’re kind of immune to it,” said Sharkey. “Now, every time you go to the grocery store they ask you if you want to donate $1, $5 or $10; you’re always seeing it on TV, so yeah, it’s a lot harder.”

But it’s not just Relay for Life that’s struggling to raise money.

“I’m hearing it from the teams, but actually, it’s the nonprofits, any nonprofit,” she said.

There are 627 registered nonprofit groups in Island County, all vying for those fundraising dollars, according to the website taxexemptworld.com. People simply have more choices of where to donate those dollars.
And, rather ironically, all the dollars raised for cancer research has led to vast improvements in cancer treatment.

“When people hear the words “You have cancer,” it’s no longer what people consider a death sentence,” Sharkey said. “Because over the years we’ve had those research dollars from the American Cancer Society, we’ve had better cures, we have better treatments, so I think we’ve kind of become desensitized.”

Plus, there are now organizations that raise money specifically for certain types of cancer.

“Ten years ago we didn’t have all those individual organizations and I think that’s why all of our dollars seem to be dwindling,” she said. “We have people that have had brain cancer, for example. They come and participate because they’re cancer survivors, but the monies they raise are going to brain cancer research, not the general American Cancer Society.”

According to Sharkey, the annual Relay raises about $100,000 for the American Cancer Society. That’s a lot of money, but half of what the Relay has raised in past years.

“We have raised as much as $210,000,” she said. “But $100,000 is still a lot of money. For every $10 we raise, it will help somebody get a ride to their cancer treatment, or a night at the Hope Lodge, or all these different things.

“Sometimes you have to realize it’s not just the overall amount of money, it’s what you’re doing with it,” Sharkey continued.

All funds raised as part of the Relay for Life are donated to the American Cancer Society. The ACS, in turn, has invested more than $4.3 billion in cancer research since 1946, and has more than $7 million currently invested in research grants in Washington state, according to figures from the ACS. In 2014, ACS provided services to 126 Whidbey Island residents from Clinton to Oak Harbor. Of those, 102 were diagnosed with cancer.

“We have to remember that not all the money stays here, but I’m helping my friends and family across the world,” said Sharkey, recounting a story of a local friend whose father in Texas was diagnosed with cancer and was getting gas cards from his local ACS office to help defray the travel costs for his treatment.

“She was like, ‘This is why we Relay,'” Sharkey said.

There are 37 teams registered to participate so far in this year’s Relay, down from an all-time high of 80. Teams can register online any time or can even show up the day of the event. There are 20 members per team and each member is asked to raise $100.

“People think after the June event you can’t raise money,” Sharkey said. “That’s not true. Teams can continue to raise funds up through August.”

This year’s Relay for Life theme is “Ropin’ Hope,” so Sharkey said those attending will be treated to some Western fun.

“There might be a fake steer to practice you’re roping and every year we have a Mr. Relay contest where gentlemen dress up as a female figure and go around and get funds and so of course they’ll be dressing up in cowgirl-ish costumes,” she said. “We have a lot of activities, there will be music and we’ll just be doing a lot of things to make you have fun.”

The public portion of the Relay kicks off at 6 p.m. June 3, but all cancer survivors are invited to attend the Survivor’s Social at 5 p.m. and they will lead the Survivor Lap that signifies the beginning of the Relay.
The traditional luminary ceremony will be held at 10 p.m. Friday evening.

“We remember those we’ve lost, celebrate those who’ve won the battle and fight back with those people that are in their fight,” she said. “We feel those individuals deserve our respect. It’s very emotional.”
The reason Sharkey encourages everyone to participate in Relay is simple.

“Who do you know who has cancer?” she asked. “For quite a few years I didn’t know why I Relayed, why I was so involved in it. Then I realized, I lost my mother-in-law to cancer, and I realized my children were going to grow up without a grandmother and I didn’t want my grandchildren to grow up without a grandmother. So, who do you know?”

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