I spent this past weekend at the University of Michigan. My younger son Max, who is a sophomore, invited me to come and participate in the students’ Relay for Life activities. I was surprised that they scheduled the Relay for this particular weekend, as they start their final exam period the following Monday! He assured me that he had the correct weekend (cynical father) and that yes, he promised to study and write his final papers even if I came. Besides, he told me, his team was already working on my weekend schedule.

So, off I went on Friday evening. Max picked me up at the Detroit airport, we drove to Ann Arbor, and had dinner together. After dinner, I dropped Max back at his fraternity house so that he could write a paper. Max allowed me to use his Jeep for the weekend, so we arranged for me to pick him up for lunch on Saturday.

At noon on Saturday, we went to lunch at one of the many student hangouts. The two of us then went to the track field where the scheduled twenty-four hour Relay had already started. I have to say the sight that greeted me was a surprise. Despite the cold weather, light snow flurries and muddy field, the field was packed with kids. On the interior of the track were many tents while booths ringed the exterior of the track.

Max and I join the crowd and began walking around the track. Every thirty or so feet we met someone whom Max knew. Kids were smiling and greeting each other. Sitting inside many of the tents were other kids, playing board games and huddling together to stay warm while they just talked to each other.

The outside of the track was lined with carnival type booths with all the proceeds going to the Relay. They were selling cotton candy, running a kissing booth, etc. My favorite was a booth decorated to look like a jail. By making a donation you could have someone arrested and put in jail. In order to get out of jail, the “prisoner” had to convince someone walking by the jail to post bail by making a matching donation.

One thing I did notice was that over 95% of the booths and teams who were relaying came from the university’s “Greek” (fraternity/sorority) community. Max, being a fraternity man, has told me about the many community service and fund raising projects the Greeks have performs on a regular basis. They do party hard, but they also do study hard and they do make significant contributions to the general community.

In the evening, we returned to the track for the beautiful Luminary Ceremony. Again, as we approached I could see the many relayers continuing their journey to nowhere. They had lined the entire track with their white bags, each of which held a candle. The formal speeches at the ceremony included one student who had lost her father to prostate cancer the past summer. As slides of her father flashed on a screen, she described him. She talked about how he dealt with his cancer and how much she missed him. Another student described her own bout with cancer and the effects of the chemotherapy.

At the conclusion of the ceremony everyone lit a candle and with the candles aglow, we all followed a bagpiper who led us around the track for an additional lap. The ceremony was quite moving.

The next morning I returned to make some final laps and participate in the closing ceremony. Again, when I arrived, there was still a large number of kids on the track. Many of them had been there throughout the entire night continuing to walk their laps – relaying for life.

During the Closing Ceremony it was announced that the relay had raised over $278,000 and they were still counting donations, all this by a group of college students who should have been at home studying. I have to applaud and thank them all.

Joel T. Nowak, MA, MSW