Those impacted by cancer rally in St. John Parish

Published 12:07 am Wednesday, April 12, 2017

RESERVE — Chad Smith has been a track guy for most of his life, first as a high school and college athlete, then as a coach and now as a parent whose kids participate in various competitions.

Yet the 37-year-old LaPlace resident didn’t know very much about the annual Relay for Life, the signature fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, which brings the community together to support cancer survivors, victims and caregivers, all while raising funds for cancer research.

Smith was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2014, but had never attended the St. John the Baptist Parish’s Relay for Life.

“I never knew what it was all about,” he said. “I knew about the American Cancer Society and how they help people who have been diagnosed with cancer, but I didn’t know about the Relay for Life.”

When Smith learned his young daughter, Tr’Nahja, a member of the Beta Club at John L. Ory Communication Arts Magnet School, would be working this year’s event as a volunteer, he learned a little more and made plans to attend.

Still, nothing prepared him for the moment when he walked into Joe Keller Stadium Saturday afternoon as a cancer survivor.

A luminaria ceremony was a poignant highlight of this weekend’s Relay For Life in St. John Parish.

“That’s when it all hit me: I’m a survivor,” Smith said. “It was very emotional.”

Smith, whose cancer is in remission, was one of approximately 350 people who participated in the annual Relay for Life St. John Parish. Although attendance was down slightly — in spite of the perfect weather — the event still raised roughly $25,000, according to Lauren Bolles of the American Cancer Society.

“It was awesome,” Bolles said. “We didn’t get as many people as we hoped. That’s something we are working on for the future, but we had quite a few first-time people and a lot of volunteers.”

Bolles said the organization also is looking at other types of events, including a celebrity waiter fundraiser to be held in August. Smith was one of those first-timers who walked his first lap as a cancer survivor. For the second lap, which includes caregivers, he was joined by Tr’Nahja. He didn’t have a full team for the third lap, but joined other family members who walked in memory of those who have lost their fight.

Deanna Miller helps children who attended St. John the Baptist Parish chief fundraiser to fight cancer by treating them to face painting.

Smith’s cousin, Vondel Sylvain, was part of the “Keep it Moving” team, a regular participant since 2014, when Sylvain’s mother, Carmella August Sylvain Holder, was diagnosed with lymphoma. This was their first without her. After two years in remission, Holder’s cancer returned, aggressively, last year and she passed away in June.

“It was so unexpected,” Sylvain said. “We didn’t know this would be the outcome up until the day she was released into hospice. We thought she would survive.”

The team, which numbered upwards of 70 in 2014, included just six on Saturday.

At first, we weren’t going to do it,” Sylvain said. “It’s really hard for everybody but we also took comfort in it. Of course we cried during the memorial service, but it was therapeutic too, especially for the kids. I have a nephew, he’s 9. He kept saying, ‘We’re doing Relay for Grandma, right?’ We had to do it for them.”