Race for fund-raising honors boosts Relay for Life total

Ken Sugiura
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 18, 2006

Seeking donations for the American Cancer Society's biggest fund-raising event in the country is all noble and good.

Angling to be recognized as the biggest fund-raiser at the society's May 12-13 Relay for Life? It wouldn't be Gwinnett County if it were any different.

Pushed by the standout fund-raising of Norcross High School, Gwinnett-based companies Scientific-Atlanta and Primerica escalated their last-minute giving until they both promised donations of $120,000 each and were named co-corporate champions of last weekend's Relay for Life.

Their contributions were part of the $2.3 million to $2.4 million haul Gwinnett's American Cancer Society chapter expects to raise when the dust finally settles from the relay.

Most likely, the Gwinnett Relay for Life will retain its title as the top fund-raising relay in the country for a fifth consecutive year. The next biggest relay event in Georgia, in Cobb County, raised about $1 million.

"It was win, win, win," Gwinnett relay co-chairman Duane Downs said.

The competition for top honors within the county intensified this year when, for the first time, the society tracked donations online.

While the intent was to make donating easier, it also enabled relay members to easily monitor how other companies, schools, churches and friends were doing.

At the relay, in the wee hours at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds, the Norcross High team tabulated its total as $108,000. It far surpassed the school's goal of $70,000. The students and teachers were elated; it was a tribute to Dorothy Lewis, a beloved math teacher who died in February after a long bout with cancer.

Aside from that, an idea hatched.

"The kids were thinking 'Maybe we'll beat Scientific-Atlanta,' " Norcross High teacher and relay team co-captain Kirsten Mixter said.

Word began to spread. Scientific-Atlanta's goal was $100,000. Primerica's was $50,000.

"I got visits during the night [Friday], wanting to know where the school was at [with its total]," American Cancer Society area manager Randy Redner said. "They'd heard rumors around the fairgrounds."

By Saturday morning, the competition had kicked into high gear. Primerica and Scientific-Atlanta team organizers kept tabs on each other through Redner. They called company executives to ask for more donations. Redner confirmed that an additional $8,000 was coming from Scientific-Atlanta through a cellphone recycling fund-raiser.

"It got to the point it became a bidding war," Primerica Executive Vice President Mark Supic said.

"Finally," Redner said, "we got them both together and said, `OK, let's call an end to the catfight and can we say you guys are tied?"'

Both committed to $120,000 and were declared co-winners.

"We were just incredibly elated," Supic said. "It involved a lot of hard work by a lot of employees here."

Norcross High, which last year was the only school in the country to raise more than $50,000, will likely retain its status as top fund-raising school in the country for the society. In post-relay giving — donations can be made through August at www. gwinnettrelayfor life.org — the total has reached $112,000.

Primerica and Scientific-Atlanta also will be among the top corporate givers nationwide.

At first, the Norcross students were crestfallen. They accused their fellow participants of cheating.

"I said, 'That's not cheating because we forced them to put about $10,000 [more] in the pot,"' Mixter said. "The kids were like 'Oh OK then!

"They thought that was all right."

Norcross High senior Nick Nonneman leads a chant with other students as they walk the trail during the Gwinnett Relay for Life on May 12. The school's team was called Hope Floats. Norcross' total has reached $112,000, making it likely it will retain its title as top fundraising school in the nation.