Bellefonte Relay for Life finds strength in survival

Participants in the Bellefonte Relay for Life walk past luminaries during the walk at Governor’s Park on Saturday, May 30, 2015.
Participants in the Bellefonte Relay for Life walk past luminaries during the walk at Governor’s Park on Saturday, May 30, 2015. CDT photo

A Relay for Life event is not traditionally a place for clowning around.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions to every rule and Saturday in Bellefonte’s Governor Park was no different.

A jester with a raggedy red wig, cherry nose and white face paint walked the same park path that relay teams had been circling since 3 p.m. on Friday to honor cancer survivors and raise money for a cure.

Sponsored by the American Cancer Society, the Relay for Life of Bellefonte looked like a cross between gym class and the world’s most urban camping ground, a place where old-fashioned tents and high-tech RVs can live in harmony.

Campers sat in lawn chairs shaded by canopies and indulged in soda, chips and pizza — you know, runner’s food — retrieved from the local snack bar.

Meanwhile, the friendly neighborhood clown reached a pavilion where she began twisting and tying balloon animals for children.

Kerry O’Hara, event lead, said that this year’s relay had a smaller turnout than in previous years. Donations were still being counted as of Saturday morning, but thus far had reached $72,000.

“It was still a nice event. It always is. Numbers down, spirits up,” O’Hara said.

Jen Leydig, a staff partner with the American Cancer Society, said that community events have a different feel from relays like the one held at Penn State in April.

“You have a lot more survivors at these than you do at a college so it just brings a different atmosphere to it,” she said

That includes an emphasis on kid-friendly fun. Many of the activities scheduled for Saturday skewered toward the youth — or at least the young at heart. There was face painting, hole-in-one golf and even a pinata.

There was a heavy emphasis on family, the ones bound both by blood and adversity.

Cancer survivor Tara Ripka, of Bellefonte, has been attending relay events for 15 years with the support of family and friends.

“When I was a survivor I came here and we were hooked,” Ripka said.

Her team “Tara’s Angels,” is made up of almost 20 people who contributed to the collection T-shirts, bracelets and gift cards that the survivor was raffling off to raise money for the American Cancer Society.

Family also played an important role behind the scenes.

Keri O’Shea, event co-lead and relay recess lead, became involved with Relay for Life after her father was diagnosed with cancer.

Today, she visits schools to teach kids how they can prevent cancer and aid in Relay for Life’s mission.

“I wanted to give back because somebody out there did this and that’s why my dad is still here with us,” O’Shea said.