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Relay For Life celebrates heroes

A sign of “Hope” shines bright outside the Unicoi County Courthouse as part of the kickoff for the Relay For Life of Unicoi County Festival of Hope. (Photo contributed by Bailey Robinson)

By Richard Rourk

As seen by all of the purple art around downtown Erwin, Relay For Life of Unicoi County once again knocked it out of the park with another successful Festival of Hope campaign.

According to Relay For Life of Unicoi County staff partner Jessica Poff, this American Cancer Society event brought much-needed awareness to heroes who are fighting for their lives.

“Sometimes heroes need help, too,” Poff said. “When discussing heroes, most people tend to think of either real life heroes like our amazing first responders or the superheroes read about in comic books or seen in the movies; but, the volunteers helping with the Relay For Life of Unicoi County definitely know a few more heroes to talk about.”

According to Poff, Relay For Life knows that many heroes can be found fighting hard against cancer: medical professionals from doctors and nurses to researchers; caregivers including families helping loved ones; the patients battling cancer; survivors’ and the ones left behind to cherish and remember a lost loved one.

Poff has partnered with Lori Ann Wright, who has co-captained a team this year, to spotlight a handful of the many heroes that made this year’s Relay For Life of Unicoi County Festival of Hope, the success story it has become. These heroes explain why they Relay.

• Lesa Buchanan, chair of the Relay For Life of Unicoi County committee this year, knows that heroes are the ones that bring  hope and her mom, a two-time cancer survivor, is a hero that inspires her to volunteer. “I Relay for my mom, June Bailey,” Buchanan said. “She is a two-time cancer survivor and one tough little lady. We never gave up hope or doubted God’s mighty power before, during and after her treatments and recovery. God gave Mom hope and courage to fight and that is why I Relay – that hope of surviving, of having another day, week, month or year.”

• Pam Banks is a longtime volunteer and committee member for the Relay For Life of Unicoi County and a cancer survivor. Banks said she dedicates her time to fight back against cancer because, “I went to my first Relay when I had breast cancer in 2002. After learning what the American Cancer Society is all about and doing to help cancer patients, I wanted to be involved to help others. I have battled breast cancer twice, and been a caregiver to many family and friends going through cancer. I will Relay until there is a cure. No one should go through this awful disease alone.”

• April Simmons, a familiar face at Clinchfield Federal Credit Union volunteers because of the people in her life who have been affected by cancer. “I Relay for my coworkers who have fought and beat cancer,” Simmons said. “I also Relay for my many friends who have struggled and continue to struggle to fight this terrible thing called cancer.”

• Tina Duncan has been a part of Relay For Life of Unicoi County for several years and also especially enjoys working with survivors. “Why do I Relay? I Relay for the survivors,” Duncan said. “They give me such inspiration to be a better person and to fight for what’s important.”

• Gary Amos, another longtime Relay For Life of Unicoi County Committee member, has a very personal connection to the research heroes that help develop new medications and treatments. He has seen the advancements that have happened during his own time battling cancer, “Cancer took my dad and my brother,” Amos said. ”My brother had two drugs he could take; I have six. I have exhausted one drug and on my second one with four more to use. Research has really changed the treatment and cure rate of cancer. I have seen so many that have battled and won due to research.”

• Kristen Allen has volunteered with Relay For Life of Unicoi County for several years and is the organizer for the Garden of Hope and Luminaria display this year. She Relays for several family members, friends and loved ones. She knows that the funds raised by Relay For Life makes a difference. “The medical care, treatments and cures we have for different types of cancer have improved over the years and it is my hope and prayer that we keep making these important medical advancements,” Allen said. “I Relay for so many family and friends who have been affected by cancer and for those who will be in the future. I Relay with my family in honor and in memory of those affected by cancer.”

• Tammy Callahan, another part of the Relay team this year helps design and publish the annual program, volunteers because of a personal hero – her mom. “I Relay for my Mom,” Callahan said. “Mom was an ‘uplifter’ and supporter of people. She told me that if Relay For Life helps just one person feel encouraged and loved, I should always do what I can. So I’ll continue uplifting hope.”

• Lori Ann Wright, who co-captains a high school team with Annette Tipton, Relays in honor of her family that has lost several loved ones to cancer. “I’ll never forget being 12 years old and seeing my grandmother in the hospital for the last time,” Wright said. “She was such a strong woman and even then she was strong for me as I got to talk to her in the hospital room. You have to have courage like a hero to fight this disease. With so many new research breakthroughs, we are winning this battle case by case and cure by cure. “

This year, Relay For Life of Unicoi County looked a little different than it has in the past due  to COVID-19. No longer was the large traditional event held at the Unicoi County High School track. Relay came downtown and had some smaller social distancing-friendly events to celebrate and honor loved ones.

The downtown community helped by decorating with a purple Relay For Life theme; the UCHS homecoming candidates did social-distancing community service to help “Paint the Town Purple” during homecoming week including painting windows, making posters and fence decorating. On Friday night the Relay teams worked together to do a “drive-thru” style BBQ meal fundraiser (survivors were treated to a free to-go meal) and the Blue Nation Warriors team held the 2nd Annual Bryon Wiggand Memorial Cruise-in for a Cure.

On Saturday, there was a motorcade through downtown Erwin for Survivors, their families, and for those honoring a loved one lost. A drive-thru Luminaria event was held later that night and the community had the chance to drive through downtown Erwin and see the painted purple downtown, the Hope sign, the Garden of Hope, and the Luminaria bags.

All the events this weekend helped raise money to fight back against cancer. Funds raised for Relay For Life and the American Cancer Society, provides Life saving research, awareness, and the support needed to help our heroes battling cancer-and even the strongest heroes need a little help sometimes.

According to Poff, Relay For Life of Unicoi County knows that heroes and hope go together and you can sure find lots of hope in the volunteers that help make Relay For Life events happen. The Relay For Life of Unicoi County would like to say thank you to all of this year’s committee members, the team captains and team members, and the local leaders and sponsors that help make Relay for Life a part of Unicoi County. This year’s teams include Blue Nation Warriors, Clinchfield Federal Credit Union, Team ALZ, UCH Relaying for a Cure, UCHS Mock Trial, UCHS Cancer Awareness (HOSA), Arts Alliance Against Cancer, and Sherry’s Angels.

Poff acknowledged that the Relay For Life of Unicoi County would like to send a special thank you to the following sponsors and supporters: Clinchfield Federal Credit Union, Ayers Foundation, Food City, Food Lion, Sam’s Club, Erwin Farm Bureau-Mark Peterson, Jones and Church Farms, Valley Beautiful Catering, Unicoi County Hospital Relay team, Kiwanis Club of Erwin, Erwin Utilities, Unicoi County Schools, Unicoi County, Town of Erwin, Town of Unicoi, The Erwin Record, Erwin RISE, Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce, LiveWire Radio, and WJHL.

Tax-deductible donations to the American Cancer Society Relay For Life of Unicoi County can continue to be dropped off at Clinchfield Federal Credit Union at any time, through the website below, or can be mailed to: RFL Unicoi County/Jessica Poff, C/O ACS – Tennessee, 2000 Charlotte Avenue, Nashville, TN 37203.

For more information on upcoming Relay For Life events or to become a volunteer, visit the Relay For Life of Unicoi County website ( or Facebook page. You may also reach staff partner Jessica Poff at [email protected]