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‘Relay Ray’ steers Berkshires’ biggest cancer fundraiser toward comeback trail

group walks at night with candles at Relay for Life (copy)

Attendees hold candles last September as they walk the track in silence at the Relay for Life event at the Guardian Life building in Pittsfield.

PITTSFIELD — At dusk Saturday, light from a thousand candles will flicker in south Pittsfield, signaling hope and perseverance.

Both for cancer survivors and for the event that champions their recovery — and needs its own healing.

The Relay for Life for Berkshire County is back. Perhaps not all the way back to its fundraising might, on behalf of the American Cancer Society, its lead organizer says.

But getting there. And with a few new moves ready.

“This is as close as ‘back to normal’ as we’ve been in years,” said Ray Gardino of Lee, pausing to take a call Friday morning, as he and others readied for Saturday’s event.

For the third time, Relay for Life will be held at Guardian Life Insurance on Route 7 in Pittsfield, after seven years in Great Barrington.

Gardino says people had asked that the event return to Pittsfield. That happened in 2020, but with an asterisk. Because of the pandemic, participants drove through parking areas at Guardian for an event dubbed “A Night of Hope.” Last year, the relay, which in the past remained in motion overnight, ran only from 6 p.m. to midnight.

paper luminaries lit in honor of cancer victims and survivors (copy)

Paper luminaries honoring those fighting cancer, those who have survived it and those who have lost their battle with the disease helped form the track last September at the Relay for Life event in Pittsfield.

This year, participants will walk a course marked by more than 1,100 luminarium bags around parking areas at the insurance company. “Each one of those bags represents somebody affected by cancer,” Gardino said.

While still not an overnight affair, this relay, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. at 700 South St., will try out features designed to build engagement.

Gardino has rented parking spaces to 11 craft vendors and invited the Pittsfield Piston Poppers club to display classic cars. Biggins Diggins, the Lanesborough restaurant, will bring a food truck.

Those added attractions are meant to draw people who might not be aware of the fundraiser. “There is something for everybody,” Gardino said. “We need support from the city, and for people to come out.”

At its peak, a local Relay for Life event could raise upwards of $100,000. So far this year, pledges have reached $54,000. Guardino said he hopes the 2022 relay will bring in $60,000. The money supports cancer research and care.

In an era of online fundraising, old-fashioned, in-person campaigns like Relay for Life can struggle, Gardino admits.

“People are involved in so much. It’s all about talking to people and just asking,” he said. “People are still extremely generous when it comes to this. There is no donation that’s too small.”

One thing, time has shown, brings Relay for Life into focus for people: a cancer diagnosis.

That happened to Gardino when his wife, Terrie, was found to have thyroid cancer. She is a 15-year survivor.

For about half that time, Ray Gardino – “Relay Ray” to many – has led the county’s relay event. Fighting cancer put him in the battle for recovery, and not just for his family.

“Our life could be a whole lot different if it were not for early detection,” he said.

Those kinds of testimonials will be heard Saturday at 8 p.m., when the relay holds its Luminary Ceremony in a tent at Guardian Life. Speakers will share accounts of battling cancer and caring for survivors.

To donate, visit relayforlife.org/berkshirecounty or speak with participants conducting fundraising during the relay.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

Managing editor for innovation

Larry Parnass joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, CommonWealth Magazine and with the Reuters news service.

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