Up All Night: Niskayuna Relay for Life a success

Jack and Laura

Co-chairs Jack Gallo and Laura DiRienzo pose in a photo booth at the Relay for Life, June 20, 2014. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Students have silly fun, raise serious money for Cancer Society in Relay for Life

Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — Niskayuna High School students threw a party that rocked through the night from Friday evening to Saturday morning last weekend. They blasted pop music, tossed food at each other, ate waffles at 3 a.m. and tie-dyed T-shirts. All their friends were there, and nobody slept.

Oh — and they raised $37,500 for the American Cancer Society.

The festivities were all part of the Relay for Life, an event affiliated with the American Cancer Society that involves a nightlong relay on a track or path. Other events can accompany the Relay itself, but each team must have at least one member running or walking at all times, “because cancer never sleeps,” according to the American Cancer Society’s website.

Niskayuna hosts the only 100 percent student-run Relay for Life in the Capital Region. Each year, a posse of service-minded high schoolers spends an entire year raising money and planning the massive community event.

“Other events that are run by students are typically college events, so they are very unique here,” said Genevieve Ballerstein, a Relay for Life specialist who assisted throughout the planning stages.

While the minimal adult presence on the committee may look like a risk, the students have used their youthful perspective to their advantage, planning trendy fundraising events that easily draw their peers.

“Most recently we did what we called Rave for Life, which was a dance party that we hosted at the soccer club,” said event co-chairman Jack Gallo, a senior. The event raised over $600. The students executed many fundraising strategies throughout the year, pulling together $24,000 before the relay itself even began.

They continued to raise money throughout the night. Gallo’s team served breakfast in the small hours of the morning. Volunteers led yoga and Zumba events and facilitated T-shirt tie-dyeing and balloon-animal twisting.

One particularly quirky game required sleep-deprived relayers to cover their faces in whipped topping and chuck cheese balls at each other, hoping to make them stick.

Matt and Nancy

Matt Haber and his mother, Nancy Cornell, lead the first lap around the track. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Solemn purpose

Despite silly festivities, the Relay for Life had a distinctly solemn purpose. Cancer survivors were easily recognizable in their matching purple T-shirts as they proudly walked the first lap of the relay to applause and cheers. After dusk, a luminaria ceremony, with candles arranged to spell the word “hope,” memorialized victims and honored survivors.

Matt Haber’s family had no problem keeping the reason for the festivities in mind. The Niskayuna High School junior and two-time cancer survivor gave the keynote speech at the relay as his parents, grandparents and two older brothers watched.

Just after Haber’s fourth birthday, he came down with what his doctor said was a cold. His mother insisted on investigating, and a frightening discovery was made. “It turned out to be acute lymphocytic leukemia, which is not exactly the common cold,” he said. His childhood pivoted around two courses of chemotherapy, lasting 31⁄2 years apiece.

Haber, who helped plan the evening’s entertainment, has been cancer-free since 2007. The relief and joy were still obvious on his mother’s face as the two led the first lap around the track, carrying flags that read “survivor” and “caregiver.”

Matt Haber

Leukemia survivor Matt Haber pauses during his speech, which kicked off the Relay for Life. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

The event ended at 6 a.m., twelve hours and $13,500 after it began. The committee tore down the tents and relaxed for just a brief moment; their tradition is to begin planning the next relay event the very next day.

Despite pure exhaustion, co-chairwoman and graduating senior Laura DiRienzo had no regrets.

“People come up to you and say, ‘This is really moving, or it was emotional for me,’ ” she said. “That makes it worth it.”

About the Author

Rebecca Isenhart
Rebecca Isenhart is the reporter/writer for Your Niskayuna, presented by the Daily Gazette of Schenectady.