Laura Arp was a typical 6-year-old girl at the 2008 Relay for Life.
She got her face painted. She laughed at the Womanless Beauty Review. She ate junk food and hung out at the tent where her church, Old Piney Grove Church, had headquarters set up.
Laura isn’t typical, however. She’s Laura, of Team Laura, a six-month cancer survivor who’s got two more years of chemotherapy ahead of her.
She has lost her blond hair but says she likes enjoying every day.
Her parents, David and Angie, are embracing every day, too.
Seeing members of their church rally around their youngster and watching as Relay for Life participants cheered their daughter on encouraged them, said David Arp.
“It’s a blessing,” he said.
Angie Arp said their 6-year-old daughter was diagnosed with Leukemia on Nov. 7, 2007, and one month later, the cancer was in remission.
But to try to get all the cancer cells out of her bone marrow, Laura had six months of her hardest chemo treatments, and she’ll have two years of maintenance chemo. “It’s a whole slew of medicine for two years,” Angie said.
“She’s tough. She really didn’t get bad except she was tired,” David said.
Angie said Laura has had eight spinal taps and four blood transfusions in her short life since being diagnosed. They worked with a doctor from St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
“He’s a blessing,” David said.
Angie said the doctor told them that this form of cancer was the most curable type of children’s cancer with a 95 percent survival rate. This motivates Angie to keep pushing for more research.
“We’ve got to keep up with this. We’ve got to find a cure for everybody,” she said. “It’s curable, but she’ll have to fight this the rest of her life.”
Their church, Old Piney Grove Church, started Team Laura to help raise money for Relay for Life. Member Brad Hurst even swallowed his pride and donned a dress to be part of the
Womanless Beauty Review to raise money as part of Team Laura.
“This is for her and all the survivors,” Hurst said.
David laughed when Hurst was mentioned. “They wanted me to walk beside him and pose as his ‘boyfriend,’” he said while shaking his head. “Everybody has been great.”
Angie and David said hearing the initial diagnosis, they had their moments where they were afraid. “Oh gosh, there were many nights you get up and don’t know if tomorrow is going to come. Our first baby died of birth defects. You feel helpless. You want to help. God’s blessing us, and that’s why she’s here.”
Angie said their daughter made a friend named Sydney, a little girl also going through treatment for cancer who also lost her hair because of the regimen. “She just clicked with Laura. When she started losing her hair, she accepted it because of Sydney,” Angie said.
Angie said seeing what they’ve seen while being with their daughter has given them a different attitude about supporting organizations raising money for cancer research. “It was an awful thing to go through but had we never been in this position, we wouldn’t know what other families go through,” she said.
“You always want to turn the channel,” David said of the commercials he sees for supporting cancer research. “Not now.”
Their church family has been a big support and often members would leave messages for Laura on the Caringbridge.org website created to support cancer patients.
The evening was a long night filled with hope, shared stories, joy and lots of fun. At the end, success was the word of the day as 2008 Relay for Life co-chairs were Rick and Cindy Shepard announced that the event surpassed its goal by $2,500, raising at total of $377,500.
“And we aren’t done yet,” Shepard said. “A couple of events are still planned and are yet to happen, so we feel confident that the amount will be even more.
“One of the goals for Blount County’s Relay for Life is ‘5 by 10,’ which means we want to raise $500,000 by the year 2010. With the rate this group is going, Dave Bennett (2009 chair) may make that goal a year early.” Rick Shepard said.
Rick Shepard thanked his committee. “This committee is unbelievable,” he said. “Every time I would turn around to figure out where we should go, someone would already be there, ahead of me.”
Shepard said there were 1,600 Relay participants, 138 teams and 5,000 people. “We were No. 1 in the state by attendance by a long shot,” he said. “Everything went really smoothly. A lot of the food vendors ran out of food, which is a good thing.”
Tim Self led the early morning activities, which took the form of a Newlywed Game, Frozen T-Shirt contest, Biggest Hair Contest, Jazzercise, Fear Factor and Chug and Crush.
“The team activities all night long went very well. About 3:30 in the morning they had a scavenger hunt among all the teams and the grand prize was Rick Shepard,” he said.
The only problem was nobody told Shepard he was going to be a grand prize, and he was asleep in one of the buildings on campus which was serving as a headquarters for the event. When the team that won the scavenger hunt finally found Shepard after an hour of searching, he was jolted awake. “I woke up about the time someone grabbed one leg and said, ‘You’re mine.’ Two ladies from the Clayton Group were serious about it.”
Shepard said he has only heard positive statements regarding the Relay. Even the rain that fell near the beginning of the Relay helped cool everyone off. “I think everybody was real pleased. I didn’t get any negative comments at all, none what so ever,” he said.
Shepard thanked the Relay committee for their efforts planning and executing for the event. In addition, he thanked Tim Self for staying up all night with team activities.
“It was lively all night long with Tim Self with the Newlywed Game, and scavenger hunt with special activities. Relay Idol went real well. It was headed up by Brian Tuggle. I think they had several folks there. The Womanless Beauty Contest was a hit. We had 20 guys sign up and they raised collectively over $2,200,” he said.
Shepard said Mt. Lebanon Baptist came through first with over $9,000 and Cate Russell came in second with close to $8,000.
“It was just a good time. It was exactly what we thought it would be. I stood back and let them run with it. There was a lot of responsibility but at the end of the day, it was the committee and the folks on the committee who made it happen. It was just pleasure working with these folks,” Shepard said.
Keith Edmonds of BB&T also dressed as a woman and walked around the campus with his boss, Benita Claiborne, whom he said volunteered him for dress duty. “I went to Maryville College and have always been involved in volunteer work and decided I could look pretty as a woman,” he said with a laugh. “I feel this is a good thing for the community and for those who have to endure cancer.”
Carolyn Forster addressed the audience before the Relay began. “What an awesome night this is going to be. This is a much bigger track than before because we’re a much bigger Relay than ever before. Isn’t it incredible,” she said.
As cancer survivors began their walk around the oval, Brian Tuggle, husband of cancer survivor and Fort Craig School of Dynamic Learning assistant principal, Lisa Tuggle, talked about the moment. “This is the bittersweet part. It makes you remember the first day you heard you had cancer. It’s also a celebration,” he said.
Tuggle said his wife had cancer four years ago. “It was on our second date, and we were having dinner at Sullivans. She said, ‘I have breast cancer.’ I had just been through a divorce and I said, ‘Is that all?’ I said, ‘We can beat this, no problem,’ and we did,” he said.
Tuggle said a positive attitude is so important when dealing with cancer. “Lisa is a firm believer in that,” he said.
Glenda Beasley of Blount County has been cancer-free for seven years and was happy to see so many people at the Relay. “It feels great to have everyone continue to support it,” she said.
Charlotte Miles of Rockford has been cancer-free for 17 years. “I’m just happy to be here,” she said.
Melody Jones was on hand to support Miles. “It was real important for me to be here to support her and be with all the other survivors.”
Larry McCloud has been cancer-free for two years. He is also married to Carmen McCloud, the director of the Blount Memorial Hospital Cancer Center. McCloud said working with the Relay is important.
“You have to keep it on the front burner.”
Carmen McCloud said the Relay is encouraging to survivors. “We keep it right in front of the community so everyone participates. Blount County is one of the best for doing that,” she said. “You see the turnout, and you know you’ve been successful with your efforts.”
Cindy Morton of Sevierville has been cancer-free for five years and enjoyed the Blount County Relay event. “I’m thrilled. It means so much. It used to be nobody had it,” she said of cancer. “Now, everybody has it. It impacts us all.”
Dick Comer has been cancer-free six years. “This relay, I’m here to encourage someone else. I’m a walking testimony that early detection works,” he said.
Rick Shepard and Cindy Shepard said the event is structured to be positive and relay hope. “A lot of people are reluctant to come out but once they do the Survivors Lap, it changes them, particularly when they come back around with the caregivers,” he said. “It’s emotional.”
Pat Blair of Blount County said he’s been cancer-free four and a half years. He talked about Relay as rain fell, and he and 9-month-old grandson Tanner took cover in the American Cancer Society/Vulcan Materials tent. “It’s great all the support you get, all the people coming together. It breaks you heart. It’s rewarding seeing this many that do care. They’re not taking it lightly.”
Connie Keeble said the Relay makes more people aware of cancer and raising money to find a cure. “You realize how many people have cancer that you didn’t realize.”
Paige Allen, walking in honor of her grandmother, 10-year survivor Dorothy Suggs, stood with D.D. Neilsen, who walked in honor of her own daughter, a one-and-a-half year survivor. “She had it when she was 18,” Neilsen said.
Charley McKinney of Knoxville said he was a one-and-a-half year cancer survivor and enjoyed the exercise aspect of the Relay. His daughter, Michelle Lattimore with Marriott Business Services, encouraged him and his wife, her mother, Ruth McKinney to participate in the Relay. “It’s good for exercise. Most doctors tell you to walk a mile three times a week. I’m ready to go some more.”
Ruth McKinney of Knoxville enjoyed the Relay, even as she sat chatting with others under a tent while rain fell. “It’s real nice. I’m a survivor 16 years. It means a lot.”
Maryville Mayor Joe Swann said the whole community is involved in raising money to fight caner. “Certainly cancer is an issue that affects everybody,” he said.
Sylvia Porter of Blount County, a 10-year cancer survivor, said the Relay is important because of how it brings more awareness. “The more people you make aware of cancer, the more survivors you’ll have. The more people you make aware of treatment and that it’s not really a death sentence, the more survivors you’ll have,” she said.