Cass County Relay for Life committee still seeking members for next year

Published 9:43 am Friday, November 29, 2013

For longtime Relay for Life organizer Terri Schmidt, the decision as to whether or not to participate in the national cancer awareness walkathon wasn’t as clear-cut as it had been in the past.

Schmidt, of Dowagiac, has spent nearly two decades helping to fight the disease, after losing her grandmother to cancer. While she and her Relay team, the Walkin’ Guardian Angles, has walked in the Cass County Relay for Life event for the past 15 years, her grandfather’s recent diagnosis with pancreatic cancer made Schmidt question whether the contributions were making any difference.

“I was honestly about to give up on the Relay this year, after my grandpa got his diagnosis,” Schmidt said. “I was angry, and I asked myself why we’re even doing it.”

However, a recent visit with her ailing grandfather recommitted her to the fight.

“I was visiting him in the hospital, and I was still seriously thinking about quitting,” Schmidt said. “My grandpa said something like, ‘why are there still so many cancer patients, why can’t they find a cure.’ My aunt hugged him and told him, ‘your granddaughter is still working on that.’”

Schmidt is currently serving as event chair for the county’s Relay for Life planning committee, which has already began meeting ahead of next year’s event, scheduled to take place May 17 to 18 at Dowagiac Union High School. However, the recently formed committee faces one significant hurdle right off the bat: a shortage of filled positions.

Right now, only around five of the committee’s chairs are currently filled, with another eight still needed to fill out its ranks.

“We’re currently having an issue, and we’re trying to get the word out about the available positions,” Schmidt said. “I post about it on Facebook all the time, that the committee still has plenty of openings.”

Schmidt is no stranger to the long and often arduous process of organizing, scheduling and staffing the event. She co-chaired the 2013 event, and was eventually convinced to take on the main leadership role for next year’s relay.

Schmidt brings her years of experience leading the Guardian Angels, which she initially formed in Niles before relocating the team to her hometown. She was inspired to form the team after participating in her first Relay 17 years ago, a year after her grandmother died.

“It was a very emotional experience, especially with all my family out there with me,” Schmidt said. “The year after that I decided to form my own team.”

Since then, the size of the Guardian Angels has blossomed, from 15 members to 60. The Angels have become well known within the Dowagiac community, Schmidt said.

“My team gets a lot of support from the community,” she added.

In the years she formed the team, Schmidt’s family has continued to struggle against cancer, which will claim an estimated 580,350 lives this year alone, according to data from the American Cancer Society. In addition to losing her grandmother and other loved ones, she was diagnosed with genetic melanoma last year, which has since been cured.

“I’ve had two ankle surgeries, so it’s hard for me to walk that track,” she said. “I’ve had plenty of people tell me that I should sit down and take a rest, but I tell them no. This is nothing compared to what my grandparents and other cancer patients have through.”

“My family has gone through so much, but there are a lot of other families that have been affected by cancer just as much,” she added.

This year, the Cass County committee has set a goal of raising $50,000 at next year’s Relay, around $2,500 more than what they collected last May. While the formal kickoff for next year’s event will take place in Jan., the committee is already organizing fundraisers.

The first of these events will take place on Dec. 17., at 6:30 p.m. at the Elks Club. For $35, artist Angela Walton with U can PAINT 2 will be give visitors a step-by-step painting lesson, with a special holiday theme.