By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Never underestimate the ability of a single person to make a positive impact on the world.
That was Relay for Life Specialist Genevieve Ballerstein’s message for Niskayuna High School’s relay teams Jan. 14 as she helped the students festively kick off the fundraising process for the school’s annual event.
This year marks Niskayuna High School’s fourth Relay for Life, but the fundraiser itself, which benefits the American Cancer Society, will tally a milestone — three decades — in 2015.
“Relay for Life started 30 years ago with one person,” Ballerstein said to students at the high school before they launched into a game of relay-themed Jeopardy and plates of catered Chipotle food.
In 1985, one man, a marathon runner in Tacoma, Washington, named Gordy Klatt, had the wild idea of running a track for 24 straight hours to raise money for cancer research. His bewildered friends and family made pledges and jogged alongside him for support.
That year, Klatt singlehandedly raised $27,000. Over his lifetime, he’s raised millions.
Niskayuna senior Ericka Stewart didn’t need any encouragement absorbing Ballerstein’s empowering message. Stewart, one of three co-chairs planning this year’s event, gave her own pep talk to the assembled students to help them understand the planning committee’s attitude.
“Even though we’re just a group of juniors and seniors, we believe our impact is enough to make a change,” she said.
One person may be enough to change the world, but Relay for Life of Niskayuna is counting on three, just to be safe. Stewart will work alongside two of her closest friends, Madison Schmitt and Taylor Giorno, to coordinate everything from publicity to catering for the event, which will take place over 24 hours beginning at 6 p.m. on June 19.
The trio was curious about the workings of Relay for Life during the event’s inaugural year at Niskayuna, when they were freshmen. As sophomores, they joined as a team; as juniors, they were on the planning committee.
Now, they’re in charge, and they’ve spent so much time together that talking to the three of them together is like a game of Mad Libs: One starts the sentence, another adds a detail, and the third punctuates.
They share a contagious enthusiasm for planning the June fundraiser, too. They began the early stages of preparation in August 2014.
“Our relay event is going to be like a giant birthday party,” Giorno said excitedly. The co-chairs chose that theme in honor of Relay for Life’s 30th year.
At the moment, their focus is on fundraising. Last year’s relay raised $37,500 and, with careful planning, 2015 could rake in even more. The key will be to start early and invite plenty of people.
“The event sneaks up on you,” Schmitt said.
With college applications and advanced classes, it’s easy for seniors to let extracurriculars slide, but these three won’t allow that to happen. At the kickoff, 40 students showed up, the most of any year so far.
“I think the word’s just starting to spread,” Stewart said.
Wanting to chip in
But it’s not just words attracting new students to the event. It’s example. One team, dubbed “Hawaii Cure-O” by its members, is populated by freshmen inspired by the hard work of upperclassmen in past years.
“Last year we visited the Relay for Life during the day,” freshman Cheshtea Prasad said.
“We imagined ourselves doing it next year as a team,” said classmate Alli Giorno, who is also co-chair Taylor’s younger sister.
In addition to inspiration from gung-ho leaders from current and past years, team member Amelia Kokernak had the end goal in sight: ending cancer.
“I have a survivor in my family,” she said. “It’s a good way to make a statement.”
The 10-person team has a fundraising goal of $1,000.
Again and again during the kickoff, students reminded each other: It only takes one person to make a difference. But then again, there’s also no limit to the number of people who can pitch in.
“We really want to make sure everyone knows it’s a community event,” Schmitt said.
She, alongside the elder Giorno, Stewart, and all the 2015 Relay for Life participants, will work hard between now and June making sure that message is heard loud and clear.
“It’s always worth it when it comes to fruition at the end,” Schmitt said.
“Seeing the final event is just amazing,” Giorno added.
Want to help with the 2015 Relay for Life of Niskayuna?
There is no cost to register, and participants of all ages are encouraged to sign up. Youths under 18 years of age must register and turn in all paperwork for the relay by June 3.
Contact Genevieve Ballerstein by phone at 220-6943 or by email at Genevieve.Ballerstein@cancer.org.
Registration is also available online at www.relayforlife.org/niskayunany.