April 15, 2017 10:03:38 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
When Mitzi Brown was told in January she had breast cancer, it shook her foundations. In the span of a medical appointment, the mom and New Hope Middle School teacher acquired an intimidating adversary. In the weeks since, however, she has acquired something else -- a formidable support system to face it with. Brown is surrounded by Team NH Heroes -- students, fellow teachers, school staff and supporters rallying to make a difference at Lowndes County's Relay for Life April 28 at the Columbus Soccer Complex. They are raising money for the American Cancer Society event in support of cancer research, prevention programs and patient support programs.
Brown's diagnosis ignited a spark that is spreading throughout the New Hope campus of almost 2,500 students in pre-K through 12th grade. While there have been previous school Relay efforts in years past, they were usually limited to a few grades. For the first time, the team includes elementary, middle and high school. Not only in honor of Brown, but also many other heroes in the extended New Hope Trojan family -- teachers, a student, school secretaries, a teacher's child, a bus driver, a former part-time resource officer and the wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles dealing with a disease the cancer society estimates almost 1,700,000 Americans will be diagnosed with this year.
"It's unreal to realize how many people here have been affected," said middle school teacher and team coordinator Liza Miley. Miley shared a deep friendship with Nikki Hollis, a New Hope teacher who passed away with cancer in 2008. The "NH" in NH Heroes represents not only the school name, but Hollis as well.
"Then, when Mitzi, one of my closest friends across the hall from me found out she had breast cancer in January, it was like, 'I've got to do something,'" said Miley, who has lost beloved members of her own family to cancer. That "something" includes more than raising money for Relay. Kids are listening to guest speakers, learning about the illness and understanding better how to interact with someone who has it.
Sixth-grader Taylor Fletcher remarked, "In FCA, we've been hearing about cancer, what it does and a lot of types of cancer. We've just been telling people to be aware -- and not to be afraid."
For those like Brown, who continues to teach as she undergoes treatment, it translates to a circle of support on campus. "The children always come up and ask me how I'm doing," she said. "If I need anything, it's been there." Teachers have come forward that she didn't know had had cancer, Brown said. "It's so good to be able to ask questions, to see others who have fought and survived."
Team NH Heroes has adopted a fearless attitude, drawing inspiration from the song "Fearless" by Columbus native and former Miss Mississippi Jasmine Murray. Miley used the song on a NH Heroes Relay for Life video posted on YouTube.
"Jasmine Murray even gives us a shout-out on the video," Miley said. Additional videos Miley has made feature familiar faces from school, all stepping up to share hope and reinforce the team's other rallying call: "Faith over fear."
Celebration and remembrance
What's going on at New Hope School inspires Lowndes Relay for Life 2017 co-leads Teresa and David Howell. The couple became involved with Relay in 2014, while Teresa was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. She's been cancer-free for three years.
"It's a special thing to me now," she said, "and as a survivor, what New Hope is doing really touched me."
The Howells and fellow organizers are finalizing details for Relay, which begins at 6 p.m. April 28 and ends at midnight. The theme is "Hollywood." NH Heroes is one of 39 teams already signed up, representing businesses, churches, civic groups, social clubs and groups of friends. Many will put up decorated "campsites" offering games, fun and food, even as team members walk laps at the Soccer Complex. Costumes are encouraged.
"Our Relay goal for Lowndes County this year is $140,000," said Teresa Howell.
NH Heroes will do their part with a kissing booth, photo booth and a "Jail and Bail" in partnership with the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office. "You can pay to put a teacher in 'jail'," Miley told students, encouraging them to come to the event.
Relay is a family-friendly experience filled with celebration and remembrance, the Howells said. Everyone is welcome. Opening events include a survivors' lap and caregivers' lap. A luminaria ceremony begins at 9 p.m.
"We didn't know anything about Relay when Teresa found out she had cancer," said David Howell. "We found out that it's not just research, but there's a network for people out there, to be able to reach out and find answers to questions or problems they may be having, support for people with cancer. We want to help try to get the word out because I'm sure there are other people going through this just like we did."
At New Hope, Miley is putting final touches on the run-up to the main event. "Paint Your Campus Purple Week" is April 24-28. Each day will have a designated theme, like wearing team jerseys on "Team Up Against Cancer" Tuesday, to donning camo on "Hunting for a Cure" Thursday. April 28, of course, calls for the "Power of Purple." Miley hopes there is a sea of Relay's signature color across the campus because, in a world with more than enough problems, Relay for Life is one way to be part of a solution.
Editor's note: For more about Lowndes County's Relay for Life, contact Teresa Howell at 662-386-0219, or Amanda Webb at [email protected] Teams may still sign up. Donations may also be made at the Lowndes County Relay for Life page at main.acsevents.org.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.