Walkers circle the track during the six-hour Relay for Life fundraiser event for the American Cancer Society on Friday, June 2, 2017 at Skyview Middle School near Soldotna, Alaska. Central peninsula Relay for Life organizer Johna Beech said that this year she began conducting various fundraising events for cancer research in January and will continue until November. (Ben Boettger/Peninsula Clarion)

Walkers circle the track during the six-hour Relay for Life fundraiser event for the American Cancer Society on Friday, June 2, 2017 at Skyview Middle School near Soldotna, Alaska. Central peninsula Relay for Life organizer Johna Beech said that this year she began conducting various fundraising events for cancer research in January and will continue until November. (Ben Boettger/Peninsula Clarion)

Relay for Life fundraises for American Cancer Society

This year’s annual Relay for Life walk — at which cancer survivors, their friends and family, and interested members of the community spent six hours Friday evening circling Skyview Middle School’s track while making donations for cancer research — is the most visible event of a nearly yearlong series of fundraisers, according to organizer Johna Beech.

Beech began organizing the local Relay for Life, a nationwide American Cancer Society fundraiser, in 2009 and said she has seen several changes in the event. The first one she hosted was an 18-hour walk from 6 p.m to 2 a.m. In 2015 she said the walk was condensed to six hours to encourage better turnout. Beech is president of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce, but does her work with the American Cancer Society as an individual.

“Some people care a lot about animals, I care about curing cancer,” Beech said.

Since January, she’s coordinated American Cancer Society fundraising efforts with local businesses, churches and clubs. Many groups have participated, Beech said, such as Homer Electric Association, which holds a pie auction for the cause around Easter time, and Soldotna’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which has traditionally held a quilt raffle. This year, the group made donations, according to member Rose Scott.

In addition to groups, Beech said there are also “some pretty dedicated but crazy people involved,” such as Mike Crawford, who solicited $851 in donations by pedaling a stationary bike for 24 hours.

“I’ve done a lot of cycling, so it wasn’t terrible, but I did need a rest after that,” Crawford said of the experience.

Local American Cancer Society fundraisers will continue until November, Beech said, and will include 5K races and a fishing event in August.

At pavilions and tables alongside the Skyview track at the relay event, local groups also attracted donations from walkers by selling baked goods, games, prizes and knickknacks. Also sitting inside the track and talking with the walkers was Emily Nenon, a government relations director of the American Cancer Society’s advocacy arm, the Cancer Action Network. Nenon spoke at the relay’s dinner for cancer survivors about her group’s state and national promotion of political efforts against cancer.

On the state level, the group supports anti-smoking and anti-vaping initiatives including youth programs and legislation such as Senate Bill 63, which would prohibit smoking in many public places. SB 63 is presently in the House Judiciary Committee after passing the senate on March 27 and comes after legislative attempts to enact public smoking prohibitions, such as 2016’s Senate Bill 1 and 2014’s House Bill 360, failed to make it through the legislative process. As with past smoking bills, local activists such as Beech have gone to Juneau with the American Cancer Society to testify in support.

Another activist walking the field was 15-year-old Joe Yourkowski, a survivor of childhood leukemia who said he has also visited Juneau with the American Cancer Society every February for the past two years, advocating for anti-smoking and anti-vaping legislation and programs. Closer to home, Yourkowski said he has organized awareness events at Sterling Elementary and Nikiski Middle-High School about smoking and sunscreen.

Asked about future plans, he said he wants to “continue educating people, letting them know about things we don’t think are dangerous, like e-cigs and vaping.”

On the national level, Nenon spoke about preserving funding for the federal National Institutes of Health, which through the National Cancer Institute is the nation’s largest funder of cancer research. The federal budget proposal that President Donald Trump sent to the U.S Congress on May 23 — which is planned to take effect Oct. 1 and must first be approved by Congress — would decrease National Cancer Institute funding by $1 billion, according to the Washington Post.

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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