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Ceres Relay for Life plugs along despite struggle
An emotional Mayra Toledo wraps her arms around Julius Diaz, 4, who wore a purple cape to symbol his status as a hero to many as he battles leukemia at the age of four. Julius walked the first lap of the Ceres Relay for Life, an American Cancer Society fundraiser, held Saturday and Sunday at the Ceres High School athletic stadium. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Thirty teams and about 325 participants were determined to make last weekend's Ceres Relay for Life a success in raising funds to fight cancer and create awareness of the disease but the results spell doubts about the future of the event.

Organizers say it was a struggle to get the event off the ground this year. To date the American Cancer Society fundraiser held at the Ceres High School football stadium raised only $21,754 of its $60,000 goal.

"This year was a very huge struggle," said event chairman Stella James. "We struggled last year but ... we took a big hit when Richland Market closed its door. Richland's team raised $10,000 to $12,000 each year. It really devastated Relay to lose them. Costs Less picked up a lot of slack though."

James is stepping down as chair of the event and said while she doesn't want to see Ceres lose the Relay she predicted "if we don't have anybody step up to the plate to take over that's going to happen."

James said the Ceres Relay is always special to her, having a family feel.

"It went really well. We have a great community in Ceres. We did not raise as much money as we would have liked to but they pulled together so well to raise what they did. It was honestly one of my best relays ever. Overall it was good."

The event got off to a start with the Ceres Lions Clubs serving breakfast to cancer survivors from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Saturday. The survivors were offered a free gift package and invited to walk the first lap after the 8:30 a.m. opening ceremony.

Emotions ran intense during the ceremony which included the singing of the National Anthem by Patty Davis, "I'll Walk You Through It," a song about a cancer survivor sung by Hope Magina and Faith Pattee, both of Denair, and the release of a dove symbolizing the hope of victory over cancer that was then joined by a flock of white doves.

James told the crowd that she got involved in Relay seven years ago when her father was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He died after a three-month battle. She also had another family member die from leukemia. Last year James had her own cancer scare.

"As I look at this path that we're all going to be walking together," said James, "I'm walking for myself, I'm walking for my family, I'm walking for one of our students who was diagnosed at the beginning of August with a rare kid's cancer and he lost his leg three weeks ago -- and he's 14 -- I walk for him. I walk for Justine (Payton) who just finished her last treatment. I walk for all of you guys. And as I take my steps on this field I walk that one day in the future we will have a cure... we won't be losing anybody else."

The Relay was dedicated to Justine Payton, a Riverbank teen who is fighting Hodgkin's Lymphoma. She was introduced by her mother, Riverbank's Leslie Radach who was diagnosed with the same disease in 2002. Eleven years later Justine Payton was diagnosed with the same disease.
"She has fought like I have never seen anyone fight before," said Radach of her daughter. "And she won."

Among the walkers of the survivors lap were Frank and Pat Avila. Both stressed the importance of regular check-ups.

Pat has survived three cancers dating back 35, 30 and 10 years ago even after being told she had terminal breast and uterine cancers.

"I was ready to die," said Pat, who was 45 the first time breast cancer struck. When it returned at age 50 she was told by her doctor "if you want to go someplace special you better go." Now at age 85 she said, "God left me here to take all 11 of my grandchildren to Disneyland."

A survivor of prostate cancer, Frank Avila said he believes in early detection.

The Relay closed with a Sunday ceremony at 8:30 a.m.

The top three teams at fundraising were "Team Justine," "Cost Less Fights Back" and "Save the Tatas."