Riding through the parking lot of First Baptist Church in Seymour on Saturday night, Glenna Walker, her son, Chris, and his girlfriend, Jennifer White, counted 14 paper bags with Phil Walker’s name on them.
Phil was diagnosed in 2007 with gastroesophageal reflux disease, which is a primary risk factor in esophageal cancer. He went through a nine-week clinical trial and ensuing surgery in 2008 and wound up cancer-free.
On Oct. 21, 2019, he died at home with chosen family and friends by his side. He was 78.
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At his funeral, people could buy luminaria bags in his memory, and they were going to be on display during the Luminaria Ceremony at Relay for Life of Columbus this year. He had regularly attended Relay for Life in Seymour before that event combined with Columbus in 2019.
Since Relay for Life went virtual this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, those involved locally decided to do a drive-thru Luminaria Ceremony.
During Saturday’s event, more than 460 paper bags were on display. Fourteen of them were in memory of Phil.
“It was an overwhelming gratefulness,” Glenna said. “I didn’t do any of it. I didn’t know they were doing it. Two people from church told me I needed to be here.”
Seeing Phil’s name on 14 bags let her know he was loved.
“He was a friend to anybody and everybody,” Glenna said. “The only thing he wanted is that you believed in the Lord and you had a relationship with the Lord. He was a good guy. He tried to get along with everybody, and he loved the Lord.”
Asked what he would have thought of the bags, Glenna said, “He would be humbled. He would say he didn’t deserve it.”
For Glenna, it meant a lot.
“For him to be remembered in such an outstanding way, it means a whole lot to a whole lot of people,” she said.
While the gesture brought tears to her eyes, they were good tears.
“It will be a year in October since he died,” she said. “Every day is a little better, but he will never be forgotten.”
After riding through the parking lot, Glenna left vehicle and stood near the church, where ESA One Step One Miracle Relay for Life team members Jan Engel and Julia Aker took turns reading the names of people who have battled cancer. That was done at the top of each hour during the three-hour event.
Each bag had a glow stick and a canned good inside. The canned goods were split between Baptist church food pantries in Seymour and Crothersville.
“We had sold the bags all along this year, and because we told people we were going to display them, this is a very important part of Relay, if you ask me, and this was a meaningful ceremony for a lot of people and it gives them a great chance to come and reflect, to celebrate their survivors but remember those that died from cancer,” Engel said.
A bag could be purchased for a recommended donation of $10.
“Cancer affects so many different people, so this is just a small way that we can honor and celebrate them,” Engel said.
Engel and Aker’s names were on the bags, too. Both battled breast cancer — Aker in 2001 and Engel in 2011.
“I was having radiation treatment on 9/11,” Aker said of when the terrorist attacks occurred in the United States.
“I had a meeting in Indianapolis, so I was listening to Bob and Tom and (news of the attacks) came on while I was driving,” she said. “I get up there, and we didn’t have the meeting. We watched TV instead. I had to go to Columbus for my radiation because they didn’t have it here (in Seymour), so I sat there in the waiting room because I got there early and just watched it.”
Engel said she didn’t get involved with Relay for Life until after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She and Aker both joined ESA One Step One Miracle.
“There’s a quote I always use, I read this when I had cancer. Somebody asked them to write a book about their cancer journey and they said, ‘I can’t because it was only a chapter in life,’” Engel said. “I’ve always thought that was one of the coolest things because cancer doesn’t define you, and you can beat it. There’s hope.”
Engel and Aker continue to support Relay for Life because people are still dying from cancer. This year in the United States, 606,000 people will die from cancer, including 13,000 in Indiana, Aker said.
“Until nobody dies from cancer anymore, they need to raise money for research,” she said.
That’s why the American Cancer Society has Relay for Life. Engel said Seymour combined with Columbus on Relay for Life to gain more volunteers and cut down on expenses.
“We want to be the best stewards of the money that we raise,” she said. “We’re making money for research, so that’s really, really, really important.”
Only a handful of Seymour-based Relay for Life teams remain, but they work hard year-round to support ACS.
Senior Community Development Manager Kathy Toburen said ACS is not allowing in-person meetings and fundraisers because of the pandemic, so the organization gave programs ideas of options to raise money.
The drive-thru Luminaria Ceremony was one of them.
“We gave them ideas, we gave them some options they could do and they took off with it,” she said. “Something like this where they can drive through and still keep social distance, we can do.”
Toburen praised the efforts of the Jackson County Relay for Life teams.
“Research is at risk right now because some of the funding has stopped, so volunteers like these guys that really just push through and don’t let that kind of thing stop them is really saying a lot for this community and for these volunteers, as well,” she said.
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To donate to Relay for Life of Columbus, visit relayforlife.org/columbusin.