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  Cancer survivors, loved ones come together to walk in Relay For Life at Avila University  
  Kansas City, MO    
June 9, 2010
View a slideshow from the event.

Sixteen teams comprising more than 200 people came together the evening of June 4 and into the early morning of June 5 on the Avila University campus to celebrate the lives of loved ones who have battled cancer, remember loved ones lost and fight back against the disease. The throng taking part in the American Cancer Society (ACS) Relay For Life of Kansas City, which included 65 cancer survivors and caregivers, raised approximately $40,000 for the ACS.

“The American Cancer Society is the official sponsor of birthdays,” said Brooke Nichols, event coordinator. And, from the beginning of opening statements by Nichols and fellow walk coordinator Nicole Walter, as well as some welcoming comments from Avila president Ron Slepitza, it was clear that celebrating the joy of life was the overriding theme. The focus was not on the horrors of the disease which had brought them to this place.

There even was room for a bit of humor.

“Every year, someone embarrasses themselves for the cause,” said Aundria Downie, who was on hand to support her team from insurance broker Lockton Inc. Downie apparently took that role upon herself this year, donned in a bright red, green and blue wig and, appropriately, big happy birthday glasses, that effectively made her look a bit like a psychedelic Ronald McDonald.

“I’ve been doing this since 2004,” Downie said. “I lost a grandmother to cancer. Right now, I have a sister-in-law battling cancer. She’s lived long past what (doctors) said, so it’s been a good battle.”

The festivities got started with a presentation to Missouri state senator Jolie Justus, who was honored for her work with cervical cancer, its relationship with human papillomavirus, which has been found to be a contributing factor in that disease, and her work in getting word out about the existence of a vaccine for HPV.

“I’ve logged hundreds of miles (at Relays For Life),” Justus said. “I think it’s a fabulous opportunity for survivors and those who love them to come out and support the fight against cancer.”

In his welcoming remarks, Slepitza said he was pleased Avila could play a small role by hosting the event on campus.

“You all make miracles happen by your commitment,” he told the gathering as the group of 65 survivors prepared to take their honorary first lap around the quad. Slepitza then walked several laps before being joined by his wife, Suzanne, and his two dogs.

The feeling of community was palpable.

“Events like this do a tremendous job in keeping people from feeling isolated,” said Forrest Brown, a sales consultant at Superior Lexus and a survivor of prostate cancer. “Even though I came here by myself, I don’t feel like I’m here alone.”

It was a warm, muggy evening with thunderstorms looming to the north, but nothing could deter many in the group from completing the marathon – 12 hours of walking, talking, celebrating and, yes, perhaps even squeezing in a bit of rest.

“I had a grandmother and wife who had two grandparents with cancer,” said Joe Heickelbeck with the team from Time Warner. “I believe in supporting this. It’s my fourth year in a row.”

Which perhaps explains why he was so well prepared.

“I’m ready for the whole 12 (hours),” he said. “That’s why I brought my sleeping bag and tent.”

For more information about the ACS, go to the organization’s Web site, at


About Avila University
Avila University is a private, co-educational, values-based liberal arts institution founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, offering undergraduate, graduate, and adult degree programs. Avila University is located at 119th and Wornall Rd in southwest suburban Kansas City, Mo.