BATTLING BACK: Relay for Life returns to inspire families confronting cancer

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GREENFIELD — Hancock County’s Relay for Life returned on Saturday, Aug. 28, with new organizers: a family whose experience with cancer inspired them to keep the fundraiser alive.

In 2020, the Relay for Life was canceled like so many other nonprofit fundraisers due to the impact of COVID-19. Before the 2021 event, longtime organizer Julie McKinley had to step away. Mike Reder and his wife, Connie, were there to take over.

“Our family decided to give it a shot,” Reder said.

Reder said on Monday, Aug. 30, that the local Relay for Life organization has raised about $9,000 so far this year.

After a year off and with a new team, the event was smaller than it has been in previous years. It was also held indoors at Greenfield Central Junior High School instead of outside near the school’s track because of the heat. But the event still featured all the usual aspects of Relay for Life, including a special lap around the gym’s track to recognize cancer survivors and the lighting of luminaries — this year, glow sticks instead of candles — to honor those who have died.

Most importantly, it was a space for survivors, those in treatment and their families to come together.

The Reder family has been touched by cancer in many ways, Mike Reder said. They’ve lost family members, and Connie Reder is a breast cancer survivor who is also currently recovering from surgery to remove a brain tumor. But the event that drew them to Relay for Life was their son Curt Reder’s diagnosis at age 8 with an aggressive form of leukemia usually seen in adults.

“He’s one of the biggest reasons why we do this,” Mike said.

Curt’s treatment was successful; he is now 40 years old and later survived a bout with thyroid cancer as well. After his own treatment, his aunt, Connie Reder’s sister Susie Erwin, was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was Curt’s idea to form a Relay for Life team in her honor, which the family would continue to fundraise with for many years.

“We had a lot of people from church who came and supported us, and she was a schoolteacher, so there were people from school too,” Connie said. “Between church and school, we had a really good team. And we just kept doing it.”

They called the team WER Fighters, the acronym standing for Wright, the married name of Mike and Connie’s daughter; Erwin; and Reder. Fighters, Connie said, came from her sister’s attitude toward her diagnosis, which later inspired Connie during her own health struggles. Erwin died in 2019 after her third battle with breast cancer.

“My sister was such a fighter,” Connie Reder. “I used her as a model for my fight back.”

Greenfield Mayor Chuck Fewell, who attended the event, said it was good to see people attending nonprofits’ events in the community again after an isolated year.

“They were ready to have events start to take place, and ready to have the opportunity to help people, which is why we’re here today,” Fewell said.

Fewell said the Relay for Life is an event that inspires people to focus on hope: hope for successful treatments; longer lives; and an eventual cure for cancer.

“This year we hope for 2021 that it’ll be a stronger, better year, and I just feel in my own heart that it will be,” he said.

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Relay for Life is a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society; more than 5,000 events are held around the world each year. Donations through the local Relay for Life can be made any time at secure.acsevents.org/site/STR?pg=entry&fr_id=99749.

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