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Friday, 08 July 2016 12:12

Teens put the fun in fundraising at Relay for Life

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Ryan Marks and Katelyn Rosenow are ready to collect donations for the Hope Lodge, a place in Marshfield where cancer patients can stay while receiving treatments. Marks and Rosenow, both soon-to-be high school juniors, work together as co-chairs of the entertainment and activities committee for the Relay for Life of Walworth County, an annual event that raises money for the American Cancer Society. Ryan Marks and Katelyn Rosenow are ready to collect donations for the Hope Lodge, a place in Marshfield where cancer patients can stay while receiving treatments. Marks and Rosenow, both soon-to-be high school juniors, work together as co-chairs of the entertainment and activities committee for the Relay for Life of Walworth County, an annual event that raises money for the American Cancer Society. Heidi Schulz

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Should you discover a purple toilet parked in your yard in the next few days, don’t be alarmed.

Instead, think of it as an unusual invitation to one of the most enjoyable -- and worthy -- local events of the summer: Relay for Life of Walworth County, beginning at 6 p.m. Friday, July 15, at the Walworth County Fairgrounds in Elkhorn, and running through 8 a.m. July 16.

Ryan Marks, 16, of Elkhorn, said the idea of this very public portable potty is not only to get friends in the community involved in his relay team, but to promote the annual event that raises both funds and awareness for the American Cancer Society.

Marks’ team’s painted purple toilet is stealthily deposited in area yards. They charge residents $10 to take it away or $20 to have it moved to another yard of the homeowner’s choice.

“Every time the toilet is at somebody’s house, we say, ‘OK, come to the relay,’ and that just kind of spreads the word around town. And it’s not just Elkhorn -- it’s Delavan, Lake Geneva, Big Foot, Williams Bay, all around Walworth County,” Marks said. “It’s a very good fundraiser. And it’s hilarious.”

It’s the kind of stunt that comes from the fun-loving, youthful minds of Marks and Katelyn Rosenow, also 16, co-chairs on the entertainment and activities committee for Relay for Life of Walworth County.

In February, Rosenow and Marks were recognized as the third top fundraising team in Walworth County in 2015, bringing in a total of $12,606 for the relay and by gathering supplies and donations for the Hope Lodge in Marshfield, Wisconsin. The lodge is available for cancer patients who need a place to stay near their treatment centers but need help with travel costs.

The two teens have been involved with the ACS relay event for years. And for both, it’s a personal calling.

At the age of 9 months, Marks was diagnosed with Langerhans cell histiocytosis, a buildup of white blood cells in the body that can form tumors and damage organs.

“It’s most often seen in children, although it can affect adults, too, but it’s a very rare form of cancer,” he said.

In 2002, when he’d been going through about two years of chemotherapy and radiation, someone asked his family to attend a relay. At 3, he became an honorary chairman.

“My parents and I decided to start a team the next year and we called it ‘Ryan’s Rebels.’ For the next 10 or so years, we kept the team together as a family-and-friends kind of deal. Then a couple of years ago, Katelyn asked me if I wanted to join the committee and I’ve been there ever since.”

Rosenow was a young dancer in the Walworth County Cloggers when the group decided to do fundraising for the 2010 relay. In December of that year, her mother, Heidi Schulz, was diagnosed with breast cancer. 

Before that year, Schulz had never been to a relay and knew nothing about the event, but she got more involved as a committee member. She took her daughter with her to annual relay meetings in Wisconsin and around the Midwest. Schulz, who was the honorary survivor at the 2012 Relay for Life Walworth County, is this year’s event co-chair.

“Katelyn’s been to almost every meeting since she was 11,” Schulz said. “It was kind of funny sometimes because the first one we went to, we didn’t know it ahead of time, but we were in different breakout groups, and she was only 11 years old. So here she is sitting in this room with all those adults. We’d meet up at lunchtime and compare notes -- what did you learn?”

Now Rosenow and Marks are seasoned relay pros, whose input is valued.

“We are incredibly lucky to have Ryan and Katelyn involved in the Relay for Life in Walworth County,” said Meghan Havill, community manager of the Relay for Life, Midwest Division of the American Cancer Society. “Youth participants bring a great energy, a new perspective and lots of creativity. We have youth involved throughout (relay) events, but Ryan and Katelyn have gone above and beyond most participants.”

“At the committee meetings, we’re the only people in the room under 30,” Marks said. “We’re like the pop culture part of the group and we’re trying to implement that into what we’re doing in the relay,” 

“It’s grown on me,” Rosenow said. “At first, I felt like I didn’t know what I could do. Now, I can contribute and our part is making it fun.” 

Part of their fun is planning themes for the hourly laps walkers take around the race track at the fairgrounds during the event. This year’s themes include pajamas, superhero costumes, Hawaiian and Wisconsin wear, tutus and an Oscar lap with gold outfits. There will also be one Aerosmith-inspired lap.  

“The one lap the crowd goes really wild for is the ‘Dude Looks Like a Lady’ lap,” Marks said. “You will see everything from tutus to dresses. I’ve seen wedding gowns and full-out cheerleader wear. I’ve seen guys wearing lipstick.”

Another popular activity is a contest where participants have to be the first to put on T-shirts that have been tied in knots, soaked in water and frozen.

“We’ve seen people throwing shirts on the ground and trying to thaw them out in slow cookers,” he said. 

“One of the reasons we’re in charge of entertainment is to get some of the younger people involved in the games and theme laps, so we want to change it up a bit,” Marks said.

Marks and Rosenow agreed it isn’t easy to get young people involved, in part because teens’ lives are filled with jobs, sports and other activities.

Rosenow will be a junior this fall at Delavan-Darien High School. Besides clogging, she’s in 4-H. During the school year, she goes out for track and basketball, and this summer, she’s a lifeguard at Mill Pond.

Marks, who will be a junior at Elkhorn Area High School in September, is on his school’s baseball and cross-country teams. He’s also a coach in the Elkhorn Parks and Recreation Department and works at Frank’s Piggly Wiggly in Elkhorn. 

“For a long time, it was just so much fun to come to the relay every year and hang out with people I know,” he said. “It means a lot to me when friends come -- and I know they don’t have to -- to support me and other survivors. After a while, it kind of got to where I knew I could get more involved in this.

“The people who are going through cancer now affect me more than my experience did because I was too young at the time,” he said. “It’s about all the people who are battling right now, or have battled and either won or lost. It’s a matter of keeping that hope that what I went through doesn’t have to happen to other people in the future.”

“This means a lot because my mom had cancer and a lot of people around us are affected by cancer. We see that every day,” Rosenow said. “The ACS says they want to stop having people hear the words, ‘You have cancer.’ We’re fighting for that.”

Schulz said after her diagnosis, she took advantage of several ACS services, including a wig program and a transportation program that provided gas cards for her travel to a treatment center in Oconomowoc.

“With a lot of places you donate to, you wonder where your money is going,” Schulz said. “I know with the ACS that it does come back to people and benefit them with services in their area.”      

While Relay for Life Walworth County celebrates cancer survivors, recognizes caregivers and even honors those who have lost their battle with the disease in a touching evening luminaria ceremony, it also offers a fun, family-friendly event, complete with vendors, food, games, a silent auction, a bouncy house and other activities.  

Schulz tells people they don’t have to be on a team to attend. And although it’s got “relay” in its title -- referring to cancer patients going the distance in fighting the disease -- the event isn’t a race.

“A lot of people just don’t know what the relay is,” Rosenow said. “When they hear, ‘Relay for Life,’ they’re like, ‘Oh, running.’”

“Ninety-nine percent of the time people say, ‘Oh, I have to exert physical exercise,’” Marks said. “But it’s not running. It’s not running at all. It’s just so much fun.”

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