Transforming Grief into Hope
Carla Stillwagon’s fondest memories of her father Charles took place in what some might consider an unlikely surrounding — her grandmother’s apartment in Queens, New York.
“We would go there all the time,” she said. “It used to be all of my cousins, I am the youngest of all of them and he was the youngest of eight kids. There were always a lot of people in this small apartment. My grandmother would make sandwiches, which was her staple. It wasn’t anything fancy or something you would want to go out of your way to be at, but there was so much love there. Seeing what he contributed to that was important to me.”
Charles Stillwagon died of brain cancer in 2006 at the age of 42, when Carla was in the third grade. Now a junior at Abington Heights High School, she uses her father’s memory as a guidepost in her work with the American Cancer Society, most notably as co-chair of this year’s Abington Relay for Life, which will be held Saturday and Sunday, June 7-8, at Abington Heights High School, 222 Noble Road, Clarks Summit.
“I’ve been doing this event since I was in the seventh grade, as has my co-chair, Melanie Fricchione,” Stillwagon said. “We both have strong connections to the American Cancer Society and what they do for people. When my father died, I was only in the third grade, so I didn’t really comprehend the situation so much. Now that I have had experience with what this event can give to families who are affected by such difficult things, I feel it is so important for me to be involved with something like this.”
The Abington Relay for Life is a 24-hour youth-run celebration centered around the Abington Heights High School Track. Roughly 44 teams of 10 to 15 members will participate in the event, which aims to celebrate survivorship, remember loved ones who have lost their battles and to raise money to improve the quality of life for cancer patients and their families. Teams will walk the track for 24 hours and are comprised of students from Abington Heights, Lackawanna Trail and Scranton Prep, as well as community members.
For Stillwagon, the highlight of the evening is the luminary ceremony, where a candle is placed in a white paper bag either in memory of someone who has passed away from cancer or in honor of someone who is battling the disease.
“All the bags are lined around our high school track and we also use them to spell out the word ‘hope’ in our bleachers,” she said. “We usually get around 400 luminaries, so it is not that hard to fill the space. All of the people throughout the community know people who have been affected.”
“As co-chair, I am supposed to read off some of the names this year and that’s emotional for me,” she continued. “The ceremony brings every person together. Everything is so quiet and different from the rest of the event. It is a cool experience and to see it every year, it has a different impact each year. It’s always a loving and intimate atmosphere.”
Proceeds from the Abington Relay for Life will benefit three programs of the American Cancer Society as well as its research. The Hope Lodge program provides food and a night’s sleep for patients and one caregiver who do not live by a hospital where they need treatment. The Road to Recovery program provides volunteers who give patients rides to nearby treatment facilities and Look Good, Feel Better provides wigs to breast cancer patients as well as seminars to improve their self-esteem and self-confidence.
“Cancer treatment is so expensive that this is some of the help we’d like to give them.” Stillwagon said. “Most people don’t know about these programs, we didn’t know when my dad had cancer that these programs were offered to us. I think it is important that we get the word out about it now that these programs are available so people can get help when they need it most.”
Throughout the Abington Relay for Life, Stillwagon will no doubt be thinking about her father, whose memory inspires her to continue her work in cancer advocacy.
“I always get upset about not having him here, especially when we are doing the luminary ceremony, which is when everyone is upset,” she said. “I didn’t really realize it until I got more involved. In the seventh grade, I was just on a team and didn’t have too much responsibility. When I started taking on more responsibility, the event began to mean more to me and it meant that I could actually do something to help other people who were in my situation.”
For more information on the Abington Relay for Life or to purchase a luminary for this weekend’s event, visit relayforlife.org/paAbington or call Cindy Delaney at the American Cancer Society at 570-562-9749 ext. 314.