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Reaching Half-a-Million

Vienna Relay for Life sets goal of raising $500,000 for American Cancer Society.

Cancer stormed through Coley Dize's family. His father and two brothers lost their lives to cancer, his mother and sister fought their bouts with it and Dize himself has survived 17 cancer-related surgeries.

"The most shocking words you will ever hear in your life are, 'It is malignant,'" said Dize at a Vienna Relay for Life Kickoff celebration, held last week on Wednesday night at Commerce Bank in Tysons Corner. "What you're doing tonight is you're choosing to make a difference," he said as he addressed volunteers and participants at the event. "The Relay is your opportunity to make a difference."

Dize, the general manager at Tysons Dodge-Jeep, donated a car — a 2007 Dodge Nitro — to the Northern Virginia Relay for Life, allowing participants to sell $5 raffle tickets to raise funds. He said that donating a car is his, and the company's, way of giving back to the community. Besides, having had a painful history with cancer, giving away a car does not seem to mean much, he said. At the end of his speech Dize pulled out a $1 bill and handed it to Irene Ward, the co-chair of this year's Vienna Relay. "This could be the dollar that finds the cure," said Dize.

In its third year of existence, the Vienna Relay is nationally recognized. It holds the title of a top-grossing rookie relay, when three years ago it raised $450,000 for American Cancer Society. Debbie Bacigalupo, the Vienna Relay co-chair in its first two years, said the goal for the first year was to raise $50,000, but the community turned out in much higher numbers than expected.

Bacigalupo and her friend Stacy Capra had attended the Fairfax Relay, and decided to bring the fund-raiser to Vienna where they grew up. Capra was a cancer survivor and also lost her father to cancer. Bacigalupo's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She explained that Vienna's successful fund-raising for ACS is a reflection of a cohesive community, where most people know someone who is affected by cancer. "The wonderful thing about [the Relay] is that it is such a family-friendly event," said Bacigalupo.

Co-chair of this year's Vienna Relay, Michelle Rhodes, said there are many ACS events that focus on individual cancers. "[Relay] is for every cancer. This event hits them all," said Rhodes who lost her mother to breast cancer.

Bacigalupo said survivors of all ages attend the event, which draws interest from high schools, community groups and corporate teams.

TO ENSURE THERE is youth interest in the event, Madison High School sophomore Connor Schmitz took it upon himself to become the youth co-chair for this year's Vienna Relay. Connor, 16, said he accepted that role because his mother, Bridget, was diagnosed with cancer last year. In his efforts to recruit youth interest, Connor goes to other area high schools to talk about the event with fellow students.

Bridget Schmitz shared her story with those attending Monday's celebration. She said last year at this time she was diagnosed with colon cancer, and did not know how she would handle it. "[Cancer] changes the fabric of your life forever," said Schmitz. "It causes you, not forces you, to change your outlook on life."

Schmitz assists her son in his efforts to talk to young people about the event. She said that local students who have gone on to colleges and universities have started their own relays at their schools, mentioning relays at the University of Virginia and Indiana University. Also, this year Georgetown University will hold its first relay, hoping to beat Vienna's $450,000 raised rookie record. Schmitz said seeing the youth work in different relays was phenomenal.

Vienna Relay organizers are hoping to raise interest among corporate partners as well. Commerce Bank, a first-year partner, hosted Wednesday's celebration. "We're thrilled to be able to host this event," said Ron Redmon, the manager of the bank's Tysons Corner office. The bank's involvement is a part of being a caring corporate citizen, said Redmon.

WEDNESDAY'S CELEBRATION is the beginning of a 4-month effort to raise money for ACS, which has its offices in Vienna. According to Nikkii Greenleaf of ACS, 86 teams participated in last year's Vienna Relay. The goal for this year's relay is to raise $500,000 for ACS.

The Vienna Relay for Life will be held on June 9 at Joyce Kilmer Middle School.