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Rutland volunteer helps to grow Rutland County Relay for Life

Courtesy of Rutland County Relay for Life

Teams participate in last year’s Rutland County Relay for Life held at the fairgrounds. 

By Christopher Biddle

RUTLAND—Richard Vitagliano says the first thing people should know about the American Cancer Society is that they’re “always there for the individual.” He’s the co-lead for the Rutland County Relay for Life, a fundraising and awareness event put on by the American Cancer Society. He’s also a territory lead for the New England Relay for Life. Both are volunteer positions he stacks on top of his day job as the manager of a Dunkin’ Donuts in Ludlow. He’s the point person for 100-110 teams that last year raised just over $250,000, and gathered in a crowd totaling more than 1,500 people to walk throughout the night in solidarity, honoring lives touched by cancer, including his own.

Vitagliano’s mother was working as his secretary when she found out she had breast cancer, he explained in a recent interview. “I’ll never forget the day that she received a call at work, and she hung up the phone and just broke down in tears,” Vitagliano said. “So at that point I knew had to do something.”

He didn’t have to look far before he found ACS, which was founded in 1913 and is one of the world’s largest and most well-known charitable organizations today. ACS reported net assets of over $1.2 trillion in fiscal year 2014, according to the website Charity Navigator. But even with its broad reach, ACS maintains a personal connection to survivors and their families.

“You can call the American Cancer Society if you’re a family member or friend of somebody who’s recently diagnosed,  or if you’re a cancer survivor… they always have a live person on the other end.”

It’s that level of care that inspires Vitagliano to fill all his free time with Relay-related activities —whether it’s coordinating with event leadership or attending fundraising events that occur year round—and it’s that dedication that launched him from just a participant, to a logistics coordinator, to event co-lead in just three short years.

Relay for Life began in 1986 in Seattle, one year after a Tacoma clinician ran and walked for 24 hours to raise money for his local ACS branch. The event has since grown into its own internationally recognized brand with over 5,000 events in the United States.

Lasting anywhere between 12 and 24 hours, each event is meant to symbolize the journey of a survivor, which the ACS defines as anybody who has heard the words “you have cancer.” The first lap is designated for survivors. Their caretakers then join for a lap before all members of all teams are brought in. Each lap has a different theme depending on the over arching theme of the day, usually something fun like Disney or Hollywood. After dark, the luminaria ceremony is a time of reflection and solidarity. Names of those who have battled cancer are read aloud while a candle is lit for each name.

The Rutland County Relay is one of the longest and the oldest according to Vitagliano. It lasts 19 hours and has occurred every year since 1987 when it raised about $30,000. Now in his sixth year of involvement and his fourth as co-lead, Vitagliano reports that his numbers for the upcoming event are up, with 122 more participants already registered and nearly $30,000 more than this time last year. Even in the midst of National Volunteer Week (April 10-16), Vitagliano won’t take credit and instead deflects praise to the volunteers he coordinates.

“The community has really made Relay more than just a one-day, 19 hour, go-down-to-the-fairgrounds-and-walk-around-a-track-event… where cancer never sleeps. Cancer’s not just there for 19 hours,” said Vitagliano.

Ted Sheloski, 56, of Ira, attended his first Relay out of curiosity. He said that he got hooked at the luminaria ceremony, and joined a fundraising team that calls itself The Misfits. For the past three years he’s organized car shows in Rutland where the $20 entry fees go towards his fundraising goal.

“Most of my car guys that come in are not there for the trophies, they’re not there for the show, they’re there for the cause,” said Sheloski, who last year dedicated his show to three members of the Rutland area hot-rod community that passed away from cancer. “Relay for Life is a family,” said Sheloski, echoing a sentiment heard throughout Relay events.

“I don’t think I’ve met anyone who came to a Relay and then didn’t get more involved than they were before,” said Nick Merrit of Rutland, who took the position of advocacy chair for the ASC’s Cancer Action Network when asked by Vitagliano, a long-time friend. He credits much of the growth that the Rutland County Relay has seen to Vitagliano.

“The numbers that we have now, solely in the number of participants, it dwarfs what we had just a few years ago,” Merrit said. Adding that the bump in numbers was in large part because Vitagliano was able to move the event from the high school to the Rutland County Fairgrounds. Vitagliano managed the fairgrounds before his current job. Beyond that, it’s Vitagliano’s X-factor that has spurred much of the growth. “If I could pick one word in terms of his involvement it would be passion,” said Merrit. “People buy into it because it’s real.”

This year’s Rutland County Relay for Life is June 18 at the Rutland County Fairgrounds. Find out more about local fund raisers by following their Facebook page, or by visiting the American Cancer Society’s website.

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