Barnwell County gathers for festival with a purpose

For a moment the carnival-like atmosphere stopped; the conversations slowed to low murmurs and the lights around the Circle in downtown Barnwell were extinguished.

The yellowish glow from hundreds of luminaries became more prominent; more noticeable. On each paper bag was a name illuminated by the candle inside.

"Each candle has a name for someone who is battling cancer, has battled cancer or is in memory of someone. We want to read the names of the candles," said Pat Rodgers.

Then the names were read, all 450 from Barnwell County.

That was the heart of the Relay For Life festivities April 24 - remembering, honoring and celebrating those on whom cancer has befallen and the reason for the months of fund-raising that culminated in the festival that night.

Before the names were read, the Rev. David Turner of Barnwell Presbyterian Church gave an invocation.

"We come to enlist in the great battle against cancer," Turner said as he invoked blessings to the doctors and scientists seeking cures and "weapons for this battle."

"We desire a victory over this disease and death and to keep alive the flame of hope," Turner said.

Relay involved about 200 participants and 16 teams for fund-raising in Barnwell County this year. Fourteen teams were represented on the Circle that night, said Valerie M. Bridges, the community manager for the South Atlantic division of the American Cancer Society.

Relay 2009 was held for the first time on the Circle with team members walking around the streets ringing the downtown area. Teams set up their camp sites inside the Circle around the fountain.

Barnwell County's Relay For Life had a goal of raising $46,000.

"Our goal is $46,000 and that is still doable. We know we have gotten $35,000 and there are teams that haven't turned in their money yet," said Lynn Cox, a Relay coordinator and the director of the Tourism and Community Development Services Department for the city of Barnwell. "We are continuing to fund-raise."

The fund-raising campaign for Relay doesn't close out until the end of August, she said.

There is still plenty of Relay merchandise like the team Relay t-shirts and the "Fight Like a Girl" t-shirts available for donations, Cox said.

Cox said those interested in Relay merchandise can contact any Relay team captain, Bridges or her at her office.

After their survivors lap, cancer survivors enjoyed a meal in the community room of the Barnwell Public Library nearby.

Essie Kemp ate with her friend Ruth May Sanders. Kemp is special to Sanders because she has been a caregiver to Sanders when she was battling breast cancer.

"She was always there when I went and when I came back; to check on me," Sanders said of Kemp.

Kemp helped Sanders after she had her chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Sanders said.

"You don't know how blessed you are until you've got it," Kemp said.

Sanders was diagnosed in February 2008. She has been in remission since February of this year, she said.

"It's wonderful to still be alive and do things for yourself," Sanders said.

Kemp and Sanders were high school classmates. Kemp graduated from the former Butler High School in 1962. Sanders followed her a year later.

Dining with Sanders and Kemp at the survivors dinner that night was Angela Long. A dark blue Relay For Life cap covers Long's hairless head. She has just finished six months of chemotherapy.

Long's hair didn't start coming out until she got her first injection to boost her white blood count, she said.

The hair loss was a little upsetting at first, but now she has accepted it, Long said.

"I won't go anywhere without a hat," she said.

On April 27, Long began 33 days of radiation treatments for her cancer, 15 to 20 minutes of treatment at a time, she said.

Sanders and Long sit and talk about injections, loss of energy and nausea from the treatments; an impromptu support group over dinner.

"People don't know what you go through until it happens to them. They can't imagine," Sanders said.

"People think when they hear ‘cancer,' they think it's all over. I chose life. You can make it," she said.

Friends like Kemp have been a big help in battling cancer, Sanders said.

"Without family and church family and people encouraging you and giving you the urge to push, it's hard," she said. "One thing you've got to have is a lot of faith and believe in God."