Being hit by a hurricane was by far the biggest scenario our island had to overcome in 2017. The days after September 20, 2017 were uncertain but mostly full of hope. Every community gathered to make the best of what was left after the storm. We, as a non-profit organization, did our best to continue not just the fight against cancer, but to demonstrate the importance of working as a team to create bigger, better things for our community. It was relevant for us to be volunteers in our community so we could help lift our island and continue our mission.
With such energy by November, almost two months after the hurricane María, many emails, messages and phone calls started coming through asking if Relay For Life Estudiantil Metro would be possible. At that moment I realized how powerful Relay For Life events were in the community and how engaged American Cancer Society volunteers were with our mission. After facing the biggest catastrophe in Puerto Rico, people were still thinking of us, realizing that cancer patients need us now more than ever.
As a staff partner I knew we had a great challenge to overcome, but not once did I imagine the extraordinary impact that the event would have on me, the committee, and every volunteer involved. It was necessary to analyze our previous event, which was not our best. We started by considering the things that were a success, those that could be bettered, areas that could use new ideas, and so on. The Event Chair, Jorge G. Jorge Torres, and I began a race against the clock to better understand the task set before us, and the possible challenges we would have to overcome. Relay has been around for so long, giving hope to so many, and this time it would be no different.
Many changes had to be done for us to be able to do Relay again. We had no venue available to host the event. We were used to an open space with lots of room to move. All the parks on the island were devastated because of the hurricane and there was no promise that any possible venue would be in its best condition for us to host a Relay. There we had our first and most challenging transition - the move to an indoor event. I started the transition by researching indoor events - mostly by looking for pictures and videos of indoor Relay For Life events throughout the Relay community. Our Executive Vice President, Dr. Lillian Santos, helped us out by reaching out to the Global Relay For Life Leadership Team for some best practices that we could use as a guide.
As part of having an indoor event, it was necessary to host an activity that would impact the community with the meaning of Relay, even with the changes that had to be made. The entire committee worked hard to make sure that our event had the essence of Relay For Life in everything we did, including our “why” - our survivors, the fight against cancer, our friends and family, and so much more. As a team, we divided our efforts to have an unforgettable day of event and create an experience that would make every volunteer involved become even more committed to our mission. Fundraising was an area that we needed to work on. Several ideas used in other events throughout the nation were analyzed and implemented, and others that we had used before were modified. This combination allowed us to surpass our event goal and give back to those who need it the most.
Within the structure of our Relay committees in Puerto Rico, we have Ambassadors. These are the volunteers in charge of providing constant communication and orientation to Team Captains. We divide the total number of teams and assign several Captains to each Ambassador. This year we improved this initiative by making sure that each Ambassador had better, stronger, and constant communication with the Team Captains with a special focus on providing ideas to fundraise, motivate team members, and help each team meet their goal.
Being a part of the communication and receiving resources from Campus Relay For Life leadership has given me the opportunity to get to know the best practices in general of some Campus Events and I also had the chance to moderate and implement new things on our event. On calls, they’ve shared ideas for fundraising strategies, samples of emails they share to Team Captains and other resources.
One of the strategies that we introduced was taken from the “Zero to Hero Program” done by the Relay For Life of Harvard and MIT. The purpose of the program is to identify those teams that are not raising any funds or that are below the goal. An email is sent to the Team Captain trying to identify if there is any help that we as staff or committee can give out, as well as remind them of the importance of the donation they make to the American Cancer Society and how it translates to the community. Our Ambassadors and the committee member in charge of the accounting of the event were responsible to follow up with the teams and give them multiple ideas to get the donations needed. We also gave them the chance to meet with us in person to better guide them in the process.
A chaperone is an adult (25 years and older) that oversees the support of the team on behalf of the school. He or she works along with the Team Captains and is the main liaison between the school and us as an organization. The chaperone could be a teacher, parent, counselor, etc. For the first time this year we also had an Ambassador for the chaperone, so their needs could also be met. This, in particular, had not been done before. It helped improve the commitment of the students, the school, and the chaperone. It also gave a higher sense of belonging to the chaperones and, in most cases, providing the unique support to the chaperone gave some structure to the Team Captains and the team members. We hosted a meeting for them without the Team Captains so they had the opportunity to look at other details that were important to them particularly.
Also with some resources found in Society Source, I found multiple ideas to make fundraising more fun and innovative, as well as focused on online fundraising. We created an online competition that was called 50 in 50. The idea was for all the team members to raise at least $50 in no more than 50 days. We designed the rules, due date, tools for the team members to pass along to family members and friend, prizes, and more. This was the hit of our fundraising campaign.
Different from other seasons, we gave special attention to new Team Captains. This was done by having them attend separate meetings (additional to the regular team meetings we have before the event with Captains and chaperones) to guide them throughout the preparation process. This helped the students to feel more comfortable asking questions and getting to know Relay better. Therefore, it improved a new Captain’s performance during their first time in that role.
On the day of the event we had nearly 2,500 participants between the ages of 15 and 23 from 20 different schools and 1 university. We celebrated our 10th anniversary with this event and not only reached our fundraising goal but surpassed it by $56,059.69 for a total of $136,059.69 - a 55% year over year increase. Even with the challenges we faced, the community came together to support our mission of saving lives, celebrating lives, and leading the fight for a world without cancer.
Since the event’s completion, we’ve been working on maintaining the great things that were highly positive, evaluating those that could be modified, and maintaining communication with the teams. We have been working on a program that encourages early contact with our teams and it involves their visit to our Hope Lodge, our visit to the participating schools, and others that will be implemented during the beginning of the season.
We are looking forward to incorporating ideas and new strategies to raise even more money to fund the mission of the American Cancer Society next Relay For Life season!
As told by Sharon Tossas, Staff.