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Last Lap Around The Track: 2019 Relay for Life Was Final Event For Watauga County

Cancer survivors Hugh and Sue Tilson introduced Relay for Life to Watauga County more than 25 years ago and remained staunch supporters of the event until they were physically unable to do so.

By Sherrie Norris

Following an unprecedented 25-year run toward a cure for cancer, it was recently announced that Relay for Life in Watauga County observed its final community event with its 2019 silver anniversary last June.

It’s a bittersweet time for those who have given their time, energy and money toward the local Relay for Life event through the years, said chair, Brian Barker, who along with his family has been involved with the fundraiser since its early days.

What once drew national attention for several years as the largest fundraising event in its population group, Watauga County Relay for Life has gradually seen a decrease in interest overall, not only in money raised, but also in team and spectator participation. The 2019 event, with the least attendance ever, was a sad and stark reminder that it was time to reconsider its future.

 In a letter sent to his team captains last fall, Barker explained, on behalf of the general committee, that a decision had been made to discontinue Relay for Life as it has always been known locally.

He said it was one of the most difficult things he’s ever done,

“The cost and the amount of work is the same whether we have 500 people or 50,” Barker said. “Despite many attempts, we have not been able to recruit many new teams, or committee members, for a number of years. Most of our committee members have been working with Relay for at least 20 years.” 

There is still hope that some of the Relay for Life events, in particular, the survivor dinner, will continue, but a definite decision has not been made, as of yet.

“What I want people to remember,” Barker said, is that we have had a great 25 years, and even, despite decreased participation, we considered our 25th anniversary successful as we finished $10,000 over our goal. We just feel that it’s time to take things in a different direction for now.”

In thanking the community for its support through the last two and a half decades, Barker pointed out that Watauga County has raised over $4.6 million in the fight against cancer.

“This is something to be very proud of and would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of our team captains, their teams, and all those who have participated and supported us in the past.”

Barker is quick to acknowledge that, although the fight against cancer is not finished, the Watauga County Relay For Life Committee feels that it has reached a turning point, based on the participation in numbers — teams, team members and attendance at the Relay event itself, all of which have steadily declined over the last number of years. “It is time to look at doing Relay differently, but we will continue our recognition and support of cancer survivors. We will still have an active Watauga Relay website and encourage online fundraising.”

Barker encourages visits to the website at www.relayforlife.org/watauganc, which will list ongoing events and items of interest to the community. “I also encourage any individuals or teams who would like to have fundraisers to do so. You can contact me to arrange turning in donations,” he added.

Anyone desiring to do online fundraising will need to sign up on the webpage. Barker will continue to keep everyone informed of new developments and ways we can participate as representatives of Watauga County Relay For Life.

“ Once again I would like to thank everyone for all they have done over the years in the fight against cancer,” he said.

Looking Back at Relay for Life in Watauga County

  • About 35 years ago, Sue Tilson organized the area’s first chapter of the American Cancer Society and, subsequently, introduced Relay for Life to her community nearly a decade later. Tilson chaired Relay for Life for many years with the help of her husband, Hugh Tilson, who covered logistics with Roachel Laney. Their team, Tilson’s Tumor Terminators, was the No.1 fundraising team for several years.
  • It all started in Watauga County with the Tilsons and 20 teams raising $26,000 the first year, with gradual climbs each year before reaching No.1 top spot in the nation in 2001 with 91 teams raising $353,222.07 under the leadership of co-chairs Glenda Trivette Hodges and Sharon Trivette Sweeting.
  • Watauga Relay held the top spot in 2002 with 99 teams bringing in $383,437.68 – the most to date ever raised at a single event in Watauga County. It remained No.1 until dropping to No. 2 in 2006. Totals were still impressive in 2008, despite its slip to No. 6 in the nation, with 77 teams bringing in $251,555.01.
  • For several years, Watauga County stayed in the national spotlight, ranking in the Top 10 Relays in the U.S. for 12 years, and claiming the No. 1 spot for five consecutive years for the most money raised in its population group. Also, for five consecutive years, Watauga received the Power of Hope award in its No. 1 spot for survivor participation.
  • A bus load of volunteers representing Watauga County Relay for Life went to Washington, D.C. on two occasions, for the national Celebration on the Hill where they met with lawmakers to lobby for increased funding for cancer research and insurance coverage for cancer screenings, among other things.
  • Also, under Hodges and Sweeting’s leadership, Relay for Life worked with Watauga Medical Center to start the Cancer Resource Center to provide services for cancer patients, many made possible with funds from the American Cancer Society.
  • After several years as team member and captain of her church team, Kathy Idol became event co-chair with Sweeting when Hodges stepped down in 2009. She chaired the event in 2010 and 2011 and back to co-chair from 2012-2014, this time with Brian Barker, Sweeting’s brother, who, as a team member, had also earlier agreed to serve as accounting chair. He then assumed the role of chairperson, which he has held for the last seven years, a role he considered “a real blessing.”
  • For Barker, the most important part of Relay For Life has not been about how much money was raised, “although that is important,” he stressed. “But it’s the opportunity to recognize and support cancer survivors and to ensure that those who have lost their battle with cancer will not be forgotten. That is the most important mission of Watauga County Relay For Life, regardless of what turn Relay may take in Watauga County in the future.”
  • The Survivor Dinner, one of the most special celebrations surrounding Relay for Life, wouldn’t have been possible through the years without the space and hospitality provided by Greenway Baptist Church, and the generosity of Outback Steakhouse in Blowing Rock, which provided the meal every year, most recently at cost and for several years, at no charge.


The survivors’ lap, such as this one in 2011, has always proved to be an emotionally-charged walk around the track that signaled the official beginning of another Relay for Life.