Hundreds of cancer patients and survivors came together Sunday, finding a new distanced way to honor their battle with cancer at the American Cancer Society’s inaugural Drive-Thru Luminaria Ceremony.
The Luminaria Ceremony is typically only one part of the ACS’ annual Relay for Life, which would have celebrated its 22nd anniversary this year.
“Normally, it’s held at Central Park, and the luminary bags are lined up in an area of the park, and we walk laps to honor and remember those who’ve battled cancer,” said Yvonne Salas, luminary lead. “Each dollar raised goes directly to the American Cancer Society.”
This year, their main goal was to simply focus on finding a way to continue honoring and remembering their loved ones and friends who’ve been affected by cancer in the midst of a pandemic.
“We wanted to make sure that 2020 didn’t go by without doing anything,” Salas added. “The luminaries are one of the main things that were done when Relay for Life first started. … We’ve grown so much since then, we’re worldwide now, so doing this for the Santa Clarita Valley was important.”
As cars streamed through Hello Auto Group car lots, which were lined with more than 700 luminary bags decorated with names, photos and messages to memorialize those who have battled or lost their lives to cancer, participants were able to do just that.
“It’s been over a year since we were able to celebrate Relay for Life, so when darkness fell and the candles began flickering, it brought back all the fond memories of what Relay for Life is all about — it was so rewarding,” volunteer Kathleen Pavard said. “Many of the survivors actually made two or three trips through to enjoy it.”
Similarly, Salas admits to getting choked up when seeing the bags all lit up.
“These are people that have fought the battle with cancer,” she added. “Those luminaries are very special to people. A lot of love and care is put into those bags.”
Goodies for survivors
During the event, Pavard was stationed at the driveway, greeting people as they came in, asking if there were any cancer survivors in the car and giving them goodie bags and a survivors’ medal.
“The most rewarding thing was I saw several familiar survivors from years past who recognized us,” Pavard added. “It was really cool and really heartwarming.”
For 15-year-old Kathleen Amos, the event culminated her battle over the past three years, which she’s spent fighting leukemia.
“Right after I was diagnosed, I remember my mom took me to Relay for Life,” the Saugus resident said. “As a kid, it felt really good to know that there were so many other people who were fighting like I was, so it’s been something I look forward to every year since.”
When she heard the event would be continuing in its new format this year, Amos said she was ecstatic.
“I didn’t think they’d be able to do anything, and honestly this was more special than I ever could have imagined,” she said as she looked at the sea of luminary bags. “Seeing my bag out there in between hundreds of others was really, really special.”
A challenging year
Salas, Pavard and the other volunteers took on the challenge of planning the event with pandemic-era regulations in mind, which wasn’t easy.
“This year was a very, very challenging year, but it was also very rewarding,” Salas said.
Luminaria bags could either be purchased and decorated by each participant at an earlier date or purchased online and decorated by volunteers, including Salas and her stepson.
“He has a full-time job, but he stayed up at night to work on them,” she added. “I’m so grateful.”
It was Pavard’s 21st year as a Relay for Life volunteer, and though they weren’t able to be there in person as usual, it’s one she won’t forget.
“I think we have the most amazing group of volunteers of any nonprofit in the entire state of California,” she said. “To think an event that large could have been pulled together by people’s blood, sweat and tears that are just volunteers — it was just an honor to be a part of.”
Salas said she, too, was honored to be a part of this year’s inaugural event, helping to make it come to life.
“When we saw the cars go by and people with tears and smiles, it was all worth it,” she added. “Relay for Life is to honor our loved ones and friends who have battled with cancer, so to be able to have this event meant everything to us because that’s what this is all about.”