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Memories, inspiration drive Relay for Life walkers in New Kensington

| Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Volunteers and walkers make their way past food booths at the Alle-Kiski Relay for Life at Memorial Park in New Kensington on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Walkers make their way past the Alle-Kiski Relay for Life sign at Memorial Park in New Kensington on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
'The Birdie' team leader Jackie Karon, of Springdale Township, shares a laugh with friends and family while working at the Alle-Kiski Relay for Life at Memorial Park in New Kensington on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014.

The Talmadge family walked minus one in New Kensington's Memorial Park on Saturday for the Relay For Life of Alle-Kiski Valley.

As they strolled casually past the tents lining the relay path, the Talmadges of Allegheny Township spoke solemnly about the memory of Larry, the family patriarch who died in May. He had been diagnosed just three months earlier with an aggressive form of lymphoma at the age of 55.

Larry's son, Jordan, walking alongside his mother and sister, said it was the first time the three participated in the New Kensington relay, dedicating the walk to his father.

“It's definitely inspiring to see the way so many people come together and support each other for the relay,” he said. “It's important to get involved and take a proactive approach because the disease can affect anyone at anytime. It can change your life so suddenly, as we unfortunately learned firsthand.”

The Talmadges' story is but one of more than 200 that could be told at the park on Saturday. That's roughly the amount of people who participated in the 13th annual American Cancer Society relay in Memorial Park.

Event Chairwoman Linda Kelley said organizers were expecting to raise about $70,000 through the relay. It began at 10 a.m. Saturday and was scheduled to run through the same time today.

As of 2 p.m. Saturday, they had raised about $52,500, Kelley said.

“I get chills after every donation we receive,” said Kelley of New Kensington. “To see this outpouring of support from the community is incredible. People find strength in one another. It's one big family when we come together for this.”

The relay's opening ceremony featured for the first time a community welcome from the mayors of Arnold, Lower Burrell and New Kensington. After a ribbon-cutting ceremony, representatives from 18 teams of two to 37 people took to the relay path as a cycle of musicians performed on an adjacent stage. Each participant was asked to raise at least $100 leading up to the race.

The relay later featured a dinner and ceremony dedicated to cancer survivors. A candlelight vigil was held on Saturday night with a slide show honoring participants' friends and relatives who succumbed to the disease.

“It's very moving,” said Kelley, whose mother died in 2007 from breast cancer. “Everybody cries and cries, but it's comforting to know you're not alone.”

Each year, the relay features an honorary survivor whose battle stories are meant to inspire. This year's honorary survivor was Jackie Karan, 78, of Springdale. She was chosen, Kelley said, for her “strength and caring disposition.”

“(Karan) is a very special person,” Kelley said. “She's very loving and very strong. She takes care of all of us. Half the people here call her ‘Grandma.' ”

After a brief battle, the breast cancer that Karan was diagnosed with in 2007 is in remission. She hopes the story of her ability to overcome the disease inspires more people to participate in the annual walk, she said.

“When my mother had cancer, we didn't know about anything like this,” Karan said, “and there's no doubt it would have helped a lot. We're helping people celebrate another birthday here and giving them time with their families. That's what it's all about.”

This year's relay was sponsored by Giant Eagle, AVI Foodsystems Inc., Rotary Club of Burrell Area, UPMC Cancer Centers and Betty's Angels, a foundation established by Joe Pierce III of Lower Burrell in honor of his stepmother, Betty Pierce, who died in 2008 from Ovarian Cancer. Registered relay participants collected donations from more than 140 community residents, businesses and organizations.

As participants walked the relay path, they were given a conspicuous reminder at the park's basketball court of why they were there. Stuffed in the court's chain-link fence were about six dozen plastic cups to form three simple but powerful words: “Hope, Fight, Believe.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or bashe@tribweb.com.

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