A total of  65 survivors are registered for this year’s Relay For Life event in San Fernando like those pictured last year.

This Saturday, July 9, starting at 9 a.m., local fundraising teams and individuals will kick off the San Fernando Relay for Life, an annual  24-hour event held at Recreation Park that raises funds for cancer research and services. The City of San Fernando has participated in this event since 2004.

Relay for Life is composed of teams whose members raise funds by taking turns walking or running around a track. Sponsors secured by the team agree in advance to donate money for their effort, and some teams work toward keeping someone on the track during the 24-hour duration. The event is emotional, inspiring and friendly.

Aside from being a a fundraiser, the event is about promoting early checkups and maintaining a constant vigilance against cancer. There will also be arts and crafts, carnival games and live entertainment.

Katherine Row, communication manager for the American Cancer Society here in the San Fernando Valley, called it a “great community gathering of those who have survived and those who come to honor those who have died.”

One of the highlights is the Luminarias ceremony held as day turns to night. People write the names of those they wish to  acknowledge on decorated paper bags, and use glow sticks to light those Luminarias placed around the track area of the park as people continue to walk.

A video screen shows photographs of survivors, and those who’ve passed away. In previous years at the San Fernando event, community members read the names of those who have passed away.

“It is so emotionally charged. It gives such hope,” Row said of this particular moment.

Many team members spend the night at the park. Some who haven’t seen each other for a year share stories and enjoy each other’s company.  It’s a chance to catch up and simply be together.

The money raised, Row said, goes to fund cancer research and helps to fund local services, including transporting cancer patients to treatment.

“Lack of transportation is the number one reason why they don’t initiate treatment,” she said.

The organization also provides free wigs to cancer patients who have lost their hair during treatment.

“When they come into the office they’re looking at the floor. They go into the wig room and soon after I hear them laughing,” Row said. “They come out looking gorgeous. They get the courage to face the world. They can carry on their daily lives with some semblance of normalcy.”

Participants At San Fernando Event Face Problems

Despite a successful run, the event over recent years has suffered from problems.

 Usually at this point, Sandra Garcia would be trying to beat the clock to raise as much money as possible in advance of the Relay.  She’d be putting on the last touches with her teammates.

In 2007, Garcia and her sister Alma formed the team “Circle of Friends” to honor a family member who came back from breast cancer twice, but ultimately lost her battle to the disease.

There have been years when up to 15 people have formed the team “Circle of Friends,” which at its height raised as much as $8,000 for the American Cancer Society by holding a variety of pre-events at various locations, and asking for donations from friends on Facebook — anything to help out.

But things are different for this team this year.

“I’m not really motivated,” admits Garcia, who describes herself as  “50/50” on whether she will participate in this year’s Relay for Life.

While she loves the relay’s purpose and holding it in the City of San Fernando being that it is in her hometown, she said this year there are far too many negative experiences that people are having.

As a result, Garcia said, many teams have opted not to participate and the event — which was positive and healing for families who have lost loved ones and motivating for survivors — now has a negative cloud over it. 

Garcia said the source of the complaints are with the event’s manager Adriana Serrano, who many say has become “too controlling and unaccommodating” to the point of alienating entire teams.

“Even some of our team members don’t want to participate in this year’s event,” Garcia said.

“If we happen to show up, it will be a last minute thing,” Garcia added. “Last year [to raise funds] we sold pan dulce (sweet bread), we did face painting, we sold necklaces, toys and water sprayers.”

In years previous to Serrano coming on board, the San Fernando Relay for Life was praised for being one of the highest grossing events in the area. During earlier years, the City’s residents raised as much as $113,000. It was noted by American Cancer Society representatives that the money raised was  especially impressive coming from a small town.

The event’s website indicated, however, that for this year 56 teams and 374 participants had so far raised $26,219.42.

But some former participants say that Serrano’s attitude has turned them off, and are now opting to stay away from the event.

“An event that was loving and supporting now feels oppressive and controlling where even the smallest request becomes a big deal. People are leaving because of her,” said another participant, who asked not to be identified.

Serrano has also been criticized for not staying on top of the administration. 

While there are those who blame Serrano for a drop in participation, and subsequently a reduction of  money raised, Row maintains  that “attendance has gone down nationwide, partly as a result of the long term results of the recession.”

This has led the American Cancer Society to make changes. Instead of a 24-hour event, some have been cut in half or to 9 hours.

In regard to Serrano, Row noted that “she’s been an effective manager. She knows the community very well.” She said that while she’s been made aware of the issue, there are no plans to change her and that this weekend’s event will go on as planned.

“Several Relay for Life events have been struggling,” Serrano told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol newspaper.  “I oversee the Relays, handle the community outreach and garner sponsorship for the events held in Sylmar, Granada Hills, CSUN, the Foothills from Sunland Tujunga to La Canada and the City of San Fernando,” she said.

The Granada Hills event, which was also viewed as highly successful, has declined. 

While Serrano didn’t want  to respond to specific negative comments made about her, she said that the event itself has had new challenges.

“My leadership skills really have nothing to do with it,” Serrano said. “There has been a drop across the board, and there have been discussion about how we can innovate and make the Relay for Life more fresh. We’ve discussed whether it’s time to come up with new activities.”

 This year’s event in Sylmar, Serrano noted, met its goals by adding adult family teams verses having only student teams, which has been the practice at that location. But still attendance was down.

In San Fernando, Serrano said, there are a lot of new teams. ”Some of our older teams got burned out. It takes a lot of work, and sometimes members of teams like to come back and just be spectators for a time before jumping back in.”

The Relay for Life San Fernando event starts at 9 a.m. onSaturday, July 9, at San Fernando Recreation Park, located at 208 Park Ave., in San Fernando. For more information, visit www.relayforlife.org/sanfernandoca or call (818) 841-3800 ext. 157.

Editor Diana Martinez contributed to this story.