Celebration of life and hope at the Relay for Life Survivor Dinner

August 27, 2014

“Today would have been my brother’s birthday, August 1. I have chills…”

…explained Agnes Tagliavento, an academic program assistant, who has for many years helped lead the school’s participation in our local Relay for Life Survivor Dinner.

Thanks to Agnes’s advocacy, the School of Hotel Administration and the Statler Hotel sponsor this annual event for cancer survivors and their caretakers in the Tompkins County area. Graduate students as well as staff from the school and the hotel volunteer every year to celebrate the lives of all survivors and remember those who have passed.

Agnes knows a lot about life with cancer. She is a cancer survivor herself, and so is her brother Nick. Their sister Domenica was recently diagnosed with the disease. Their brother Joe succumbed to cancer a few years ago. During his illness and before being diagnosed herself, Agnes became a volunteer and then a team captain for Relay for Life. She now co-chairs the Survivor Dinner with Nicole Boosembark-Baker ’02, representing the School of Hotel Administration.

Nicole, the Statler Hotel’s revenue manager, has volunteered for Relay for Life since 2005. Like Agnes, Nicole shares a personal connection to the event, as cancer took her father’s life, and her mother is now a survivor. Nicole’s energy and enthusiasm for this labor of love are evident to anyone who talks to her about it. She works diligently to manage all the pre-event logistics and to coordinate the participation of all the graduate students who volunteer at the event.

Life is ServiceOutreach and public engagement are two of the guiding principles that have shaped Cornell University since its inception. Inspired by the words of the school’s first major benefactor, E. M. Statler, Hotelies live by the credo that “life is service.” Like Hotelies everywhere, our school welcomes the opportunity to serve our community through events including the Relay for Life Survivor Dinner.

Joel Lim, president of the Hotel Graduate Student Organization, worked with Nicole on all the preparation logistics for the dinner and served over 100 event participants. Joel reflected that sometimes these events remind us of the meaning behind an issue. Not only were the students able to practice their hospitality skills by volunteering at the event, engaging with classmates and survivors in this way gave them a deeper understanding of how cancer affects our community and helped the classmates form a closer connection with one another.

Sharon Tier, the Relay for Life’s 2014 event chair, told me that there is so much gratitude for the work of all our volunteers in hosting the dinner that saying “thank you” doesn’t seem adequate.

Perhaps the most moving part of the event is the Luminary Ceremony. The luminaries are simple white bags, each with a votive candle inside, and each one dedicated to a loved one. Pictures and thoughts about those loved ones adorn the bags. Some luminaries express love and respect for those who have died, while others are dedicated to survivors. All represent the shared hope that cancer will someday be cured.

During the ceremony the stadium lights are turned off and the candles inside the bags are lit. They light the way throughout the night to the walkers on the track, symbolically lighting the way to find a cure for cancer.

Sharon Tier quoteAccording to Tier, “This ceremony is the most memorable component of a Relay for Life. It is usually comprised of music, speakers, and poetry, delivered while participants silently walk the track.”

The Relay for Life Survivor Dinner invites people whose lives have been changed by cancer to gather as a community, to celebrate life and honor those they have lost. This opportunity to come together with others who have traveled the same path is so important. As members of our community and Cornell employees, it is an honor for us to engage with the community in such a profound way.

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