WALLINGFORD — Holding handwritten signs, honking car horns and driving in vehicles decorated with purple balloons and messages offering hope and honoring the lives of loved ones, cancer survivors, their families and other advocates departed the parking lot of Lyman Hall High School Friday night in a motorcade that ended at the Meriden Green.
It’s been 25 years since Meriden’s first Relay for Life event, which benefits the American Cancer Society. The annual event has raised roughly $1 million since it started, according to organizers.
Organizers had hoped to converge on Falcon Field in Meriden for this year’s Relay for Life. But the COVID-19 pandemic led to statewide restrictions on large public gatherings, forcing organizers to cancel.
Organizers are still hoping to hold an in-person Relay for Life at the Meriden Green this year. It is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 3.
So organizers followed the lead of educators who held motor vehicle parades in students’ neighborhoods, deciding to hold their own parade dubbed “The Wheels of Hope.”
Meriden and Wallingford police and firefighters, along with Hunter’s Ambulance staff, joined the motorcade Friday night.
Meriden City Councilor Michael Rohde, who helped launched the city’s first Relay for Life in 1995, was the parade’s organizer. He described the annual relays as “celebrations of life, survivorship and the memories of those who died from cancer.”
Rohde was diagnosed with cancer when he was 40 years old.
“If it wasn't for the American Cancer Society, I wouldn't be here,” Rohde said. “The American Cancer Society contributed to research that cured the cancer I got.”
Betty Berger, a longtime Meriden resident, said she and other Relay participants were disappointed that they wouldn't be able to convene the annual event.
“It has such a significance to survivors and to those people who have lost loved ones,” Berger said. “We want to keep the hope alive in our community and celebrate our 25 years.”
Berger's son Jeff, now 45 years old, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in 1994 when he was 13. Now cancer free, her son was treated with a then-new stem cell treatment, and was one of the youngest patients at the time to receive the treatment.
Berger, Rohde and other organizers hope that the event gives people hope as the ongoing battles against cancer and now COVID-19 continue.
For Rohde, the fact the Meriden-Wallingford Relay for Life event had grown from being a small gathering to an annual event that raises thousands each year is an accomplishment in itself.
“It's kept going and going,” Rohde said. “It's amazing to think something we started from nothing 25 years ago is still going strong.”