More than three weeks before participants took their first step in the Relay for Life, cancer survivors were honored at an annual banquet.
The Survivor Dinner is one of the major events leading up to the relay to benefit the American Cancer Society, which this year will be April 11-12 at the Plant City High School track.
The guests at the meal at Plant City's First Baptist Church included people who have been diagnosed with cancer and their caregivers, and other supporters of the relay.
Plant City has one of the largest relays in the state. Its 2014 goal is $265,000, all for the Cancer Society's fight against the disease.
“We like celebrating our survivors,” relay chairwoman Linda Herman said at the March 24 dinner.
Many of the survivors and caregivers will be among the hundreds of people who will take turns walking the track from 6 p.m. April 11 to noon April 12.
The walkers raise money through pledges and donations from supporters and by selling refreshments, gifts and more at the relay.
The work begins long before the relay begins. As early as the fall, teams of walkers raise money with fundraisers, such as golf tournaments and car washes.
“Plant City is No. 4 in the state of Florida for the largest Relay for Life event,” Herman said. “This is our 16th year of doing Relay for Life in Plant City.”
The guests at the dinner included Sylvia Stevens, who said she felt “very fortunate and blessed” to be a 10-year survivor of the disease.
The featured speaker was Joy Neely, who has been named honorary survivor and will also speak at relay opening ceremonies.
“This time last year I was in the thick of treatment and only one lymph node away from being in the advanced stage (of breast cancer).”
Neely said her faith helped sustain her during difficult times.
“In illness I do not lose heart,” she said. “As faith is strengthened I do not lose heart, our times are in (God's) hands.”
After Neely's speech, certificates and trophies were given out for such distinctions such as the Youngest Cancer Survivor (5 years old) and the Oldest Cancer Survivor (86 years old).
Neely and her positive outlook has motivated Relay for Life organizers, Herman said.
“Joy has been an inspiration to the planning committee and event volunteers to work even harder than ever to beat this terrible disease,” she said.
Plant City's success is due to a core of longtime, dedicated volunteers, including families of those who have died of the disease, and generosity of the community. The cost of the March 24 dinner was paid for by Jarrett-Scott Ford and the Florida Insurance Center.
For Relay for Life information, including sponsorship info, contact American Cancer Society community representative Allison Martinez at (813) 685-0670, ext. 5452 or email@example.com. The event website is at www.relayforlife.org/plantcityfl.
Reporter Dave Nicholson contributed to this report.