Bakersfield has long boasted of having one of the world's largest Relay for Life events, but this year, the fundraiser's net income shrank for the first time in nearly two decades.
The massive fundraiser took a hit as several big donors shifted their giving from Relay to the Kern County Cancer Fund, a local charity effort that emerged last fall amid concerns that the bulk of the dollars donated to the American Cancer Society from here did not go to local programs.
Relay for Life is a big deal in Bakersfield, drawing thousands of people and hundreds of teams who not only raise money at a weekend event but start collecting donations months before it kicks off through various activities.
Fundraisers for this year's Relay included a wild west musical and a fire truck pulling competition.
But despite the philanthropic pushes, at last weekend's main event local Relay organizers announced that roughly $1.6 million had been raised so far, about $540,000 less than the $2.2 million net income in 2012.
Collections for the event are accepted through the end of August; a Relay spokeswoman said it hopes to reach $1.7 million or more by then. If last year's numbers are any indication, the group's net income should still be among the most impressive in the nation.
Christie Ray, Bakersfield Relay's team development mentor, said though the numbers were down, they weren't disappointing.
"I don't think anybody is feeling, 'Oh man, this wasn't a success.' It was a roaring success," Ray said. "It's not about we're losing money to someone else. It's about we're helping people and that's what we want to do."
Ray said it was obvious things would change when Leslie Knox, president of a local industrial cleaning company and a major cancer fundraiser, partnered with the Comprehensive Blood and Cancer Center to back the new cancer fund.
Knox and her company, Advanced Industrial Services, are heavyweight donors and fundraisers that have funnelled millions of dollars to a variety of cancer causes, including $2 million to San Joaquin Community Hospital's new cancer center, which has earned AIS naming rights.
The Kern County Cancer Fund -- modeled after a Coachella Valley program -- helps local cancer patients with treatment costs, such as health insurance deductibles, prescription medicine and COBRA payments.
By contrast, Relay for Life is the banner fundraiser for the national nonprofit American Cancer Society, whose mission includes funding research, education, advocacy and service programs.
The Kern County Cancer Fund will address needs that the American Cancer Society doesn't and that is a good thing, Ray said.
"We just could not be happier that they're doing something that just isn't a part of the American Cancer Society's mission," Ray said. "(The Cancer Society's) mission is to save lives and that will be done with research and the education and the advocacy."
K nox declined to be interviewed for this story. But last fall, as the cancer fund was gearing up, Knox said she loved Relay and thought of it as a special celebration.
"I think (Relay is) important to a lot of people and again, we'll always participate in that," she said. "It won't change but I just think that there's so much that we're missing right here that I'd like to be a part of making a difference right here to the people that, you know, are around me."
FUNDRAISER SHIFTS FOCUS
Since 1994, as far back as the society's records go, the local Relay has increased its total every year. Its $500,000 drop this year is clearly tied to AIS and other groups' shift in focus to supporting the county cancer fund.
Advanced Industrial Services contributed more than $300,000 through Relay last year, making the company and Knox the event's top fundraising team and individual.
This year, the company participated in Relay but had not contributed any money for the event as of Friday, according to the fundraiser's website.
In years past, AIS cut the American Cancer Society big checks from its flashy Fight For Life fundraiser -- an autumn affair featuring mixed martial arts fights and live music.
But the earnings from last fall's Fight For Life -- about $632,000 -- were given to the local cancer fund instead. The donation was matched by the Comprehensive Blood and Cancer Center and its founder, Dr. Ravi Patel, according to Michelle Avila, director of the CBCC Foundation for Community Wellness.
On top of the Fight for Life money, other donations have come into the group, putting the fund at roughly more than $1.3 million, and Avila said the folks giving to the cancer fund say they want their money to stay local.
AIS isn't the only major donor who opted to give to the local cancer fund over Relay.
The organizers of Coconuts for a Cure, a family fundraising team, contributed a large chunk of the money they gathered from their annual fundraisers to the cancer fund.
Erin Furrh, who heads the group, said her family joined Relay about five or six years ago hoping to raise $1,000 its first year but collected $5,000. Since then, its fundraising has grown to include an annual golf tournament and a crab feed that drew about 550 people this March.
Of this year's haul, the group decided to donate $20,000 to Relay for Life and $50,000 to the cancer fund after Knox, one of the big donors for the crab feed, approached Furrh about giving to the cancer fund instead, Furrh said.
The Coconuts group had also wondered how it could give to local people as well after directly helping one family dealing with cancer.
"After you see that and you endure what these families go through, you just can't even imagine having to do it yourselves," Furrh said.
But Furrh said giving to the cancer fund won't spell the end of the group's involvement in Relay.
"I didn't want to take 100 percent of (the money) away from Relay For Life because that's the research part of it," she said. "I still think it's a great foundation and I will definitely still donate with them and we will still participate."
A GROWING FUND
Next month, the cancer fund will announce its 18-member board of directors.
The fund was planted and is growing under the umbrella of the CBCC Foundation for Community Wellness. Avila, who sits on the patient eligibility committee, said there are no overhead costs or employees for the program right now.
Applications for assistance are reviewed by a patient eligibility committee and aid is granted on a six-month basis. So far, the group has approved helping 23 Kern County cancer patients with their insurance needs and is close to having paid out or committed $100,000, Avila said.
"We've seen an increase in applications since the program launched in January," Avila said. The committee meets twice a month and started out reviewing three to five applications; it now looks over about a dozen at each meeting.
"We look at a variety of individuals, they don't just have to be the poorest of the poor," she said.
Avila said she thinks there's plenty of charitable support to support both the fund and the American Cancer Society locally.
"I know that a lot of those donors too still support Relay for life as well," Avila said. "I think there's so much to go around."
The local Relay participants won't find out how they ranked this year compared to other events until September. The country's second largest Relay -- in Gwinnett County, Ga. -- will hold its Relay this weekend.
Last year, Gwinnett County's Relay raised more than $1.8 million.
In an email Thursday, Charaighn Sesock, marketing communications manger for the American Cancer Society, wrote that the Bakersfield Relay remains the largest in the nation.
"Raising less money from one year to another does happen frequently with many events around the U.S.," Sesock said in an email.