MAYPEARL - Ellis County Relay for Life kicked off its annual fund-raising event for the American Cancer Society on Friday night at the Maypearl ISD football field.

“We have 50 teams walking and we expect to top $150,000,” said event co-chairman Mary Ruth Mitchell, a cancer survivor who has volunteered with the organization for nine years.

During the opening ceremonies, Mitchell thanked everyone for their efforts on behalf of Relay, the American Cancer Society’s primary fund-raising event.

“We’ve worked so hard this year, and you’ve done such a good job,” she told the several hundred people who converged on the field. “What you do is so important in raising money for research. I have had so many people tell me, ‘Mary, I think I’m alive because of Relay.’ ”

Following the singing of the national anthem by Meg Woodward of Cedar Hill and an opening prayer by pastor Jeff Bankhead of Central Baptist Church of Italy, Mitchell and several committee chairmen made presentations.

In an emotional speech, Laura Autrey reminded the crowd of how Relay in Ellis County has grown since its first event in 1997 with 12 teams that raised $18,000.

A cancer survivor, Autrey was first diagnosed with the disease in 1991.

“I was a cancer victim, and then I became a cancer survivor because of people like you,” she said, saying she underwent a regimen of chemotherapy, radiation and other care.

Autrey’s cancer returned in October 2001, when cancer cells that had been dormant for 10 years awakened, putting her through another regimen of treatment.

“Now, here I am in 2007 battling cancer for the third time,” she said, noting she’s not discouraged and that she intends to see her grandchildren - who are Relay participants - graduate from high school and college.

“I want to thank you for being a part of Relay,” she said. “Let’s keep walking and dancing until we find a cure.”

Twenty-two-year survivor Laura Compston talked about the importance of caregivers and the service they provide those suffering with the disease.

She then listed this year’s honorees:

Lisa Crouch, who cared for her mother, Jane Blevins, and was nominated by June Saunders Jenny Graf, who cared for her mother, LaWanna Graf, who nominated her Arnell Kimbro, who cared for her husband, Wayne, her sister and many others, and was nominated by her husband Carene Paulson, who cared for her husband, Archie Paulson, and was nominated by Trudy Harlow Pat Petty, who cared for her sister, Jo Ann Higdon, and was nominated by Karen Matiowetz Sisters Nancy Rippy and Brenda Lee, who cared for their mother and Joni Vaughan’s grandmother, and were nominated by Vaughan Homer Uehlinger, who cared for his wife, Kayrene, who nominated him

Special sponsorships recognized were those of Ash Grove, which donated $15,000 and whose employees raised $13,000; Baylor Medical Center at Waxahachie, which donated $10,000 plus an additional $2,300 by its employees; and the Daily Light, for its in-kind donation of advertising space.

“You are an inspiration,” said Sheryl Sullivan, director of marketing for Baylor. “Thank you for giving us an opportunity to be with you.”

Daily Light Publisher Neal White noted cancer’s impact on the community.

“So many of us have been touched by cancer in our lives,” he said, noting Relay is an opportunity for people to become involved.

“One of the things we can do is Relay for Life,” White said. “The steps we take tonight moves our scientists and doctors one step closer to a cure. We can wipe out cancer in our lifetime and that’s what we’re here to do tonight.”

Everyone’s participation is important, said Mitchell, noting,

“Whether you are a $100 sponsor or a $15,000 sponsor, it is so important to us.”

Returning as master of ceremonies and disc jockey was The Baron, who offered his own thoughts as the walk got under way with the survivors taking the first lap.

“These survivors are the reason we Relay,” The Baron said. “Some have been cancer free for a month. Some have been cancer free for years and some are undergoing treatment right now.

“We honor your courage,” he said, asking each to release a purple balloon as his or her name was called.

“We’re making progress in the battle against cancer,” he said.

Woodward, whose grandmother is a cancer survivor, returned home from Oklahoma State University to walk on a team in honor of one of her friend’s mom, Angie Shaw.

“This is the first Relay I’ve participated in,” she said. “I’m excited about it.”

Former Relay co-chairmen Joe and Patty Chagnon were in a supportive role this year for the event with Patty serving as captain of the Lighted Pathways Hospice team. She noted the hard work involved in steering the committee, which was chaired this year by Mitchell and Cindy Hancock.

“Nobody knows how hard it is to do it,” she said, describing the work as “full-time.”

Noting the volunteers needed to put on the event, Chagnon recognized in particular one group of young people who were at the field at 8 a.m. Friday to fill the luminarias.

For Chagnon, this year is particularly poignant having lost her baby sister at the age of 39 in February to melanoma.

“I said I’ve got to be there (at Relay),” she said.

Cancer survivor and volunteer Alyssa Kirton has participated in Relay with her family - husband Lyall and son Brett - for about seven years as team members with Central Baptist Church of Italy.

Kirton was diagnosed with cancer in 1991. Since her involvement with Relay, she and her family members have each served as team captains, with 11-year-old Brett serving as captain the past several years.

“We’ve got a lot of survivors on our team,” she said, noting she was walking this year in honor of a special friend, Kayrene Uehlinger of Italy.

“I’m doing it this year for my friend,” Kirton said. “She’s been battling cancer for about four years now. Her husband is one of this year’s caregiver honorees.”

The bottom line, Kirton said of Relay, is that of raising money to fight cancer.

“All of the headaches, heartaches and sleepless nights, it’s all worth it,” said Kirton, who lost her mother to cancer.

For her church’s team, fund-raising for Relay is almost a year-round activity.

“We start in the early fall having fund-raisers. We have garage sales, meals after church, that kind of thing,” she said, noting all proceeds go to the American Cancer Society.

Also among the participants was Carter BloodCare, with staff member Tonya Ferreiro saying 30 people had signed up as of Friday evening to donate during the event.

“We’re here to support the event,” she said, noting the importance of donated blood for those fighting such diseases as leukemia.

“We’re here to support the cause,” she said.

Teams were expected to walk through the night, with the goal being to have at least one walker on the track at all times until the event’s end Saturday morning.

E-mail JoAnn at editor@waxahachiedailylight.com