A Protective Relay

Every year, Mt. Lebanon firefighters circle the Relay for Life track in turnout gear.

Kathy Noorbakhsh, Kate Truver and Heather Pessy may have a lot of things in common, but there’s one thing that stands above all other things—they hate cancer. The trio are the co-chairs for Relay for Life of Mt. Lebanon, which is celebrating its 10th year of saving lives by raising funds for the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Along with staff partner Alex Vaughn, a community development manager for the ACS, the co-chairs are putting the final touches on this year’s landmark event, slated for Saturday, June 15, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. at the Mt. Lebanon High School stadium.

The concept of Relay for Life is simple: Fundraising teams assemble and collect donations leading up to the Relay, and then during the event, team members take turns walking the track. Relay has guidelines, rather than rules: Teams should have 15 participants including at least one survivor, and each person should raise $100. That said, Pessy notes no one is turned away and every bit of money helps.

“Everyone is appreciated,” Pessy says.

It’s not just the teams who enjoy Relay and raise money. Relay for Life of Mt. Lebanon is open to the public. Admission is free (although the co-chairs say you should bring $20 to buy food and play carnival games. All money goes to the ACS.)

Relay features live music, dancing and motivational speeches. Survivors have their own special time, including a dinner and a Survivor Lap, during which all the participants applaud, and cry, and applaud more. And at dusk, the Luminaria ceremony features lit candles in paper bags on the stands, spelling out words of hope, in honor of those whom cancer has touched.

Sue Watson, of a group that brought the first Relay to Mt. Lebanon.

As if those activities weren’t enough, Relay sponsors fundraising events all year, including a Quarter Auction—kind of a cross between an auction and a raffle—happy hours, golf outings and wine tastings.

To register a team, sign up for survivors’ events or get the list of all associated activities, go to relayforlife.org/pamtlebanon.

In the last nine years, Relay for Life of Mt. Lebanon has raised $1,598,445, from more than 90 teams. Nearly 1,800 people have participated, and more than 95 survivors have been recognized.

Organized by Sue Watson and Heather Knuth, the first Relay, in 2010, featured 94 fundraising teams, raised $164,724.47, and earned Mt. Lebanon the title of “Rookie of the Year” within the national Relay system. Since then, it has grown and changed, morphing from a weekend-long event to a more concentrated, daylong festival.

Relay for Life of Mt. Lebanon is now in the Top 50 Relays in the country.
“I think this is a community that rallies around causes,” says Noorbakhsh. She noted constant assistance from the school district, the municipality, police and the fire department (who walk the track in full turnout gear!). “They have walked with us,” she says. “I can’t stress that enough.”

Truver, Fernwood Avenue, agrees. “We knew we were lucky,” she says of the support. “How very lucky Mt. Lebanon is for sure.”

Pessy, who teaches math at the high school, also notes the students have always embraced Relay. “I’m always excited for the youth and the energy they bring,” she says. “That always makes me proud.”

The Mt. Lebanon High School marching band

Noorbakhsh, Northridge Drive, says Pessy’s energy in rallying the students to participate is important, since they graduate a new group every year and new kids need to become involved to sustain the enthusiasm. “Heather has been instrumental in keeping that student population engaged,” she says.

Relay also helps people who are fighting cancer and their families to learn about available support. From telephone resources to rides to treatment, ACS can provide a lot of help. When her brother was battling cancer four years ago, Truver says “I called that number I don’t know how many times with questions large and small. We would not have known he should have had a patient navigator at the hospital but for ACS.”

The 24/7 cancer helpline is: 800-227-2345. You can find more resources on the ACS site: cancer.org, which also includes a chat feature for help.

In 2018, ACS provided 34,816 rides for Pennsylvania patients; 1,941 of those in Allegheny County. More than 2,000 Pennsylvania patients received a wig or head covering, and 1,468 people in Allegheny County received information by phone, in an email or during online chats.

If those numbers aren’t impressive enough, Vaughn cites this biggie: In the last 25 years, cancer death rates are down 27 percent.

Noorbakhsh says the survivor lap is one of the most emotional points of the event. “That’s what Relay is all about,” she says. “Celebrating the survivors.”

Photography by Amy and Michael Froelich