Bakersfield Relay for Life raised more than $2.1 million for cancer-related causes this year, jubilant officials announced Sunday, breaking its record and solidifying its standing as one of the most successful community Relay events in the world.
This year's haul for the American Cancer Society was more than $50,000 larger than last year's, which then was a record.
"You guys are stinking amazing!" Julie Brinkman-Petree of the Relay executive team yelled to the thousands of remaining participants just before revealing the big number.
The number drew cheers, hugs and the waving of cancer society flags from the crowd, which donned T- or golf shirts representing various teams of fund raisers.
In its 21st year here, the annual weekend-long Relay for Life event involves teams of fundraising friends, family members and/or co-workers camping out and participating in various other activities in a huge field while at least one member walks along a quarter-mile loop at all times to raise money. Teams also raise money in activities before the big weekend.
This year, 2,936 cancer survivors participated in Relay, event organizers said, as did 423 teams (as of Friday). More than 7,000 people registered as team members; the team from Advanced Industrial Service raised by far the most money -- $323,542.
The figures posted by other groups may not have been as large, but their efforts were still hugely impressive.
Sisters Chris Justin and Karen Chamberlin, part of team "Bob and Kathy's Crusaders," Relayed in memory of their parents and sister, who died of cancer. The first year they did Relay, seven or eight years ago and with the sister that they later lost, they raised about $250, the sisters said. They said this year they collected more than $10,000.
Chamberlin said they're in part motivated by something her sister told her just before she died.
"My sister said, 'Don't you dare stop doing this,'" Chamberlin recalled. "We've been committed ever since."
Though hugely successful, Relay didn't come off without any hitches at its new donated digs on a huge empty dirt lot near Meadows Field.
Some participants complained about excessive dust and long waits to get into the site from Highway 99, though they were quick to say the event was worth the trouble and they were glad to be there.
It took Pam Gragg, who was part of a team representing the Kern County Escrow Association, an hour and 45 minutes to get the short distance between the freeway and Relay site at about 7 a.m. Saturday, though she called the event overall "awesome." People who drove in before and after that apparent crunch time also talked of waits, but not nearly as long as Gragg's.
And Marsha Weimer, who has valley fever, had to wear a dust mask during Relay. Part of the team "U.S. Postal Service Family & Friends," Weimer praised the event's planning generally but added that surely someone in town could volunteer to put down grass next year.
"It's an amazing site. I like the size," said Weimer, who has participated in Relay for some 15 years. "But health-wise, there's a real need for grass, and there's the ability to make that happen in Bakersfield."
Brenda Godbold, Relay manager, called the 112-acre area -- offered up for free by owner The Allen Group -- the "best site ever" in terms of size and availability of parking. Any venue is going to be "at the mercy of the climate," she said.
Both Godbold and Barry Nienke, Kern County Roads Department senior engineering manager, expressed optimism Sunday afternoon that they and the California Highway Patrol could get together and come up with an even better traffic plan for next year.
This year's plan told most participants to come into the site from eastbound
Asked if she thought it was practical for someone to put down grass for next year's Relay, Godbold smiled and said: "Anything is practical at Relay."