Donna Wilson has worn many hats over the last five years. If you knew her at this time in 2007, she was nearing the end of a good-length stint as a morning show host for Tom and Sue O'Brien over on Cree Road at Arctic Radio CHTM-610 AM. A few months later she would be moving over here for a three-plus year stint as the general manager of the Thompson Citizen and Nickel Belt News.
Since then she briefly ran the Rogers Wireless franchise in City Centre Mall a year ago before opening Nanny's Diner in Westwood Shopping Mall last December. She also ran Ducky Promotions, Beautiful Plus Fashions on Fox Bay in 2009, and before that, a home business known as the Newfie Store, selling Newfoundland products. Wilson was no slouch on the home front either moving from Staghorn Drive out to Liz Lake and back to Riverside Drive in Thompson over the last three years.
Through all those professional and personal moves, there has been a constant though – the 12-hour Relay for Life here in Thompson every April since her good friend Penny Byer, an old mediahound herself at CBC Radio in her pre-council, pre-Vale days, and involved with Relay for Life from the beginning, asked her to emcee an event seven years earlier, Wilson recalled in an April 2010 column for the Thompson Citizen. She now chairs it.
This year's Relay for Life takes place Saturday, April 28 from 5 p.m. until 5 a.m. Sunday, April 29. Teams of 10 register to participate and gather pledges and do fundraising leading up to the event. The opening ceremony at 5 p.m. is followed by the first-lap "survivor walk" and a "luminary ceremony" at 9 p.m., Wilson said. A costume parade will be held at midnight followed by a "headshave for cancer" at 12:45 a.m. There will also be a spelling bee at 2 a.m. and Zumba lessons and "other great entertainment all night long," she added.
The event was held on a Friday night for years until a couple of years ago, when almost a year in advance, the City of Thompson somehow managed to accidentally double-book the arena for the also traditional Friday in April Knights of Columbus elementary school track and field meet, hence bumping Relay to Life to Saturday night and a 5 p.m. rather than 7 p.m. start time, along with a 5 a.m. rather than 7 a.m. finish.
Pun intended, Wilson took the mix-up in stride, and has kept with the Saturday night format.
While this year is being billed as the 10thannual Relay for Life in Thompson since the event debuted in 2001, you might well, truth be told, put a small asterisk beside that 10. In 2008, Relay for Life wasn't held because of renovations to C.A. Nesbitt Arena, but Byer, who owned Ruckers Family Fun Centre adjacent to the Burntwood Hotel at the time, put on the one-time "Rucky's Relay," which Byer organized. When she heard that there wasn't going to be a Relay for Life in 2008 she decided she had to do something, noting her brother who had telephoned her a year earlier on April 20, 2007, to wish her a happy birthday and wish her well with that day's Relay for Life here, also told her he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer during that same telephone call. Rucky's Relay raised nearly $4,000. It attracted four registered teams, three families who arrived to participate in whatever fashion they could and many individuals and groups of all ages. In addition, there was a 'Daffodil Wall' to honour cancer survivors and remember those who have lost the battle to cancer.
For Wilson, those are the kind of stories that go to the very heart of why Relay for Life matters: we have all been touched in some way closely by cancer.
"Growing up I hadn't heard much of cancer other then my mom mentioning her friend Daphne who had died of it," Wilson says on her Canadian Cancer Society personal web page. "Then that word came around again when my best friend Cindy's mom was diagnosed. It was pretty traumatic for us. Cancer took over her life. Years later my mom lost another friend, Regina."
Indeed few of us can forget councillor Brian Wilson, 77, also a former School District of Mystery Lake superintendent, bravely taking the first lap in his wheelchair, pushed by his wife, Valerie, at the 2010 Relay for Life, just weeks before he died in palliative care May 9, 2010 after more than a seven-year battle with a particularly aggressive and rapid onset form in February 2003 of acute myeloid leukemia (AML), also known as acute myelogenous leukemia. The relay is kicked off with local cancer survivors walking or being pushed in a wheelchair for the first lap while being led by a bagpiper. The survivors' caregivers join in on the second lap, followed by the Thompson Community Band.
Thompson's annual Relay for Life event last year took home four of 11 awards for the 2011 Golden Luminary Awards at Elkhorn Resort in Riding Mountain National Park last fall. Four awards in total were handed out to Wilson and her team. They were for, highest overall team revenue, with the Cancer Crushers team raising an astounding $19,722.33; highest percentage of teams in the Fundraising Club, with Thompson's relay having had nearly 40 per cent of their overall revenue raised by the Fundraising Club, while Thompson also took home highest average participation amount, as well as lowest cost to raise a dollar, with only three cents spent for every dollar raised.
Relay for Life remains the community's signature cancer fighting fundraiser and has grown in leaps and bounds since it's inception in 2001.
Wilson, the current chair, says, "I was originally approached to emcee the event, but once I saw what a great event it was I wanted to get more and more involved."
Thompson's relay is held at the C.A. Nesbitt Arena where teams walked laps for 12 consecutive hours. "At least one person from each team is walking the entire time and they can switch in and out whenever they want," said Wilson, "but it's not limited to one person, teams can have three or four or even their whole team walking together at the same time."
The 2011 event saw 36 teams participate and raise $138,000 for the fight against cancer. In 2010, Thompson's Relay for Life raised $93,000 – up by $10,000 from the previous year. Money collected from Relay for Life goes to the Canadian Cancer Society to help fund research, provide information and support services for people living with cancer and to advocate for public policies that reduce cancer risk and help people living with the disease.
Started in 1985 by Dr. Gordy Klatt, a colorectal surgeon in Tacoma, Washington, Relay for Life was first held in Canada in 1999, when it raised $85,000. By 2008, there were 451 Relay for Life events across Canada, with over 200,000 Canadians participating on 18,883 relay teams, which included 36,415 cancer survivors.
To date, Thompson's Relay for Life has raised over $850,000 in nine years. Wilson says the 10th year will be huge with the prospect of hitting the $1-million milestone so close. I" will think of Cindy's mom and my other best friend Karen's mom who fought so hard to survive and lost the fight. For all the moms we've lost. Wally's (Itson) dad and too many others to mention. It's just so maddening when we stop and think of all the lives taken from us by such a killer. Cancer will not win! We will continue to fund raise. We will never give up the fight … I think participation is going to be a record high for our next relay," said Wilson, "more and more people will want to be a part of it because of the fact that it's our 10th year and that million dollar mark is so close. If we do as well as we have recently, we'll get to one million dollars raised no problem."