La PORTE — The temperature reached upward of 90 degrees across the area last Saturday, but the passion of those gathered at the La Porte County Fairgrounds burned brighter than the sun.
Hundreds of locals braved the elements to help put a stop to cancer during the 24th annual La Porte County Relay for Life, which ran from Saturday morning to Sunday morning. More than 20 teams participated in this year's Dr. Seuss-themed event, walking laps around the track and participating in various activities to honor cancer victims – both survivors and those who succumbed to the disease.
One of thousands of Relays taking place across the country this year, the event serves as the American Cancer Society's foremost fundraiser.
As the name implies, members of each team – along with family, friends and others from the community – took turns walking around the fairgrounds track during the 24-hour event, which symbolizes the constant struggle those fighting cancer face, according to event co-leader Karen Irk.
"Cancer doesn't stop, it doesn't rest – and neither do we," she said.
This year's Relay campaign is expected to raise around $60,000, according to Irk and co-chair Debbie Latourette-Smeltzer. More than 90 percent of money raised will stay in La Porte County, paying for transportation for residents to and from the hospital for cancer treatments, a program that provides free wigs to patients, and many others, the organizers said.
The teams have been busy raising money for the campaign for months, through everything from selling hot dogs outside Kabelin Ace Hardware to partnering with local restaurants for special give-back nights, where businesses donate a portion of customers' bills, the co-leaders said.
Several local companies, including Blue Chip Casino and Shoreline Brewery also donated to this year's Relay campaign, which officially ends July 16.
Auctions are another way the community supports Relay for Life. In addition to a silent auction that included items such as an Indianapolis Colts gift basket, which the team donated, several people crafted handmade chairs in honor of a family member who had cancer for sale during an "Empty Chair Auction."
By this past weekend, the 2019 La Porte County Relay for Life had raised $40,000, with organizers adding they believe they will easily reach their $60,000 goal by July 16.
People didn't only donate cash, though. In total, Irk estimates around 250 to 300 volunteered to help with the 2019 campaign.
"It's wonderful how much the community reaches out to us for this event," Irk said. "There isn't anyone who doesn't know someone who has or had cancer."
Irk and Latourette-Smeltzer, who are cousins, know this all too well.
As the name of their Relay team – "Cancer You Messed with the Wrong Family" – implies, both women have loved ones who fought the disease. Some, like Latourette-Smeltzer's daughter, Casey, overcame cancer; others, like her sister, Pam, succumbed to it.
Irk, who lost her mother to cancer, is fighting the disease herself after her doctor diagnosed her with a form of leukemia last fall. Though the cancer is spreading slow enough that she should be able to live a full life – "My husband will probably kill me before the cancer does," she joked – her condition has given her yet another reason to continue the fight.
"We've got to find a cure for this awful disease," Irk said. "The more people who help, the sooner we'll find that cure."
People who would like to donate to this year's campaign can do so online or by mailing a check to the American Cancer Society office, 130 Red Coach Dr., Mishawaka, IN 46545. Donors can make contributions to the La Porte County Relay for Life or on behalf of a specific team.