For Relay Walkers, It’s Personal

Joan Jackson
By Joan Jackson March 15, 2012 05:00

Freer with granddaughter Kristen Tidwell (left) and Jen Bick; Ben Hicks photo

When 71-year-old Mary Freer hits the Sonora High School track May 5 for the American Cancer Society’s annual Relay For Life fundraiser, she will step out with a passion and energy unique to those whose lives have been broadsided by the disease.

Freer’s husband, Ralph, died of cancer July 28, 2006 at 76, less than three months after doctors discovered a massive tumor on his liver. Her father and two brothers-in-law also died of cancer.

Her best friend is a five-year breast cancer survivor, and Freer estimates at least a third of the 200 people on her church’s prayer list are battling cancer.

Across the nation last year, cancer claimed the lives of 572,000 people, and close to 1.6 million were newly diagnosed.

So, Freer will lead “Papa’s Team,” named for Ralph, onto that track with a profoundly personal understanding of the importance of funding for cancer prevention and research. Her children, grandchildren, friends and other relatives from throughout California will join the 24-hour event that has become an important family tradition over the past five years.

Freer first learned of Relay from her granddaughters. For the first two years, Papa’s Team walked in Calaveras County, where granddaughter Brittany Waterman attended school. For the past three, they’ve joined the effort in Tuolumne County, where granddaughter Kristen Tidwell went to high school.

Although only one member of Papa’s Team is required to be on the track at any given time, the close-knit group often does lap after lap together. Tents are set up so that walkers can rest, but Freer stays up all night. “It’s a way to remember that cancer doesn’t take a break,” she says.

Freer’s husband faced a number of serious health issues during their 48-year marriage. He survived five major heart surgeries over 20 years and grappled with emphysema. But cancer was the most insidious.

In 2001 a melanoma tumor was discovered on the optical nerve of his right eye. Nine months later he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of glaucoma, and the eye was removed.

In May of 2006, his doctors discovered a massive melanoma on his liver, and Ralph was told he had only months to live. So he and Mary decided to make the trip they traditionally took each June to visit family in Oklahoma and Missouri. The journey gave Ralph the opportunity to say goodbye to his many loved ones. He died in July.

Freer had always been a doer, committed to community and service, but after Ralph’s death she found herself in full retreat. “I did nothing for three months,” she confesses. Finally she turned to prayer, which led to a renewed and deepened commitment to service.

“I absolutely love it,” she says. “It’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Along with her Relay work, Freer has trained with the American Red Cross to help at disaster sites. She mentors moms of preschool children, and does mission work across the globe through Sonora’s Sierra Bible Church, traveling with friends to Quito, Ecuador, and Ensenada, Mexico to support an orphanage and churches. Last summer she visited Guatemala with her granddaughter and friends, raising money for a much-needed village well and medical supplies.

This year, her focus is on a Hope of the Nations effort to establish a private school in the Kigoma region of Tanzania, one of the world’s poorest countries. At the same time, the missionary group wants to help a nearby public school where 22 teachers oversee 1,300 children.

“They teach with nothing more than a chalkboard,” she says.

A former school administrator, Freer knew that outdated supplies warehoused locally would be a godsend for the Tanzanian schools. A 40-foot container filled with school supplies is now on its way to Africa. Freer and her fellow volunteers hope it will be there well before they arrive for their mission in June and July. It will be Freer’s third month-long visit there.

“Mary’s very special,” says Jen Bick, who heads up this year’s Tuolumne County Relay For Life. “She gives everything to her family, friends and community, and always so joyfully.”

Bick, 30, and her twin sister, Christina Corbell, have their own reasons for championing Relay fundraising and prevention efforts. Jen’s husband, Joe, 39, is an Army veteran and five-time melanoma survivor who speaks to groups throughout Northern California on behalf of the Cancer Society. Jen and Christina’s father, Brad Trimeloni, died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 at age 51.

“When our family comes together for this event each year, it helps us all heal a little more from the loss of our dad,” Bick says. “It’s still really hard, but it does get a little better each year.”

© 2012 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Joan Jackson
By Joan Jackson March 15, 2012 05:00