Passion & Purpose

Garner Rallies for Relay

When your life knocks you down … stand back up and make a difference.

In 1998, in her 20s, Jill Wanchock Cottengim was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Garner Magnet High School teacher was thrust into a “surreal” world of chemotherapy and radiation treatments to fight the cancer, while she continued lessons in the classroom.

But during her treatment, she responded to a notice regarding Relay for Life, the signature fundraising event of the American Cancer Society.

“I felt I needed to do something; I’m just not a person to sit around and wallow,” Cottengim said. With the help of family and friends, she stepped up to lead Garner’s first-ever Relay on an old track at her alma mater, Garner High.

“When we moved to the football field two years later, we had to run the electricity under the track from the field house,” she recalled with a smile.

Cottengim, who was ultimately successful in her battle with Hodgkin’s, has chaired Garner Relay for Life ever since — even the year she and husband Chris welcomed twin daughters Laney and Logan, now 8.

“My girls are Relay kids,” Cottengim said, who help raise money for the cause. “They ask about when I was sick, and we openly talk about it. I like to think that through Relay, they’re learning about giving and helping others.”

Garner’s Relay has grown to become one of the largest in the area, earning the ACS’ esteemed All-American Relay award in 2009. With the support of the Town of Garner, the event is now held at Lake Benson Park.

Garner’s Relay has raised almost $2 million since its inception, averaging about $160,000 each year. The dollars largely stay in this area, funding cancer research and ACS patient programs such as Look Good … Feel Better and Road to Recovery.

Her local leadership helped earn Cottengim the James Stevens Service to Garner Award in 2010, presented by the town and the Garner Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s like a well-oiled machine; everybody knows what their job is, and gets it done,” she said of Relay’s 14-year evolution here. “We have people working on Relay who have been in it since the beginning. Also, it’s a tight-knit community feel. Garner rallies around just about everything, and we’ve grown a lot in the number of participants, teams and survivors taking part.

“Organizers from the ACS say it’s their favorite Relay to attend; they think it’s amazing.”

Locals form teams and brainstorm unique fundraising ideas to take part, such as the team that set up a giant screen at its Relay campsite to offer pay-to-play video games. A dance school team clogs for donations, and one of the many teams from Garner High offered “Prom”oting a Cure, where prom-clad students danced for dollars.

Vandora Springs Elementary School uses Chairs of Hope as its annual Relay fundraiser: Students and staff paint donated chairs, then auction them to the community. This year’s theme, says art teacher Jim Hunt, is works by famous artists.

“You’ll see a van Gogh chair, a Monet and a Degas chair, to name a few,” he said. The Chairs of Hope auction will be held April 19. For more information, contact Hunt at (919) 662-2486 or

The top fundraiser each year is Garner United Methodist Church’s Cooking for a Cure team, which has participated since 1999 and averages more than $30,000 in donations annually.

“Our main fundraiser is our annual barbecue chicken lunch and dinner,” said team member Martha Liles. “Church members sponsor cases of chickens or vegetables, which helps our profit by decreasing food costs.”

This year’s dinner is on March 23 beginning at 11 a.m.; see

“At Relay, we sell hot dogs, hamburgers, home fries and chicken wings on Friday, and sell breakfast biscuits on Saturday morning,” Liles added. Garner UMC published its Cooking for a Cure cookbook to benefit Relay in 2000, with a second edition released in 2010, titled Still Cooking for a Cure.

The Relay event itself begins each year with an inspirational first lap around the track taken by cancer survivors. Caregivers walk next, then each team keeps at least one person on the track at all times during the overnight event — because cancer never sleeps.

The touching Luminaria Ceremony honors individuals who have been affected by, or lost their lives to, cancer, and the Kids Walk is on Saturday morning.

Throughout the night, the huge variety of Relay teams host activities from their trackside campsites.

“It’s like a fair atmosphere, with music and a DJ; the entertainment is constant the whole time, and there’s really good food,” Cottengim said. “It’s always been fun.”

Relay draws the community together against a common enemy, Cottengim says.

“There are lots of charities people can give to, but when you think about it, we are all affected by cancer in one way or another — yourself, a family member, a co-worker,” she said. “The disease doesn’t discriminate. The more money we raise, the fewer people we will lose to it.

“It’s amazing to see, in the 14 years since I was diagnosed, how things change in diagnoses, treatments, and new drugs,” Cottengim added. “I want cures for all cancers, and for people to learn more about prevention.

“My wish is that my girls, and their whole generation, would never have to deal with cancer.”

This year’s Relay is set for April 27-28 at Lake Benson Park in Garner. For more information, see

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