They were raising money for Jack Suarez's fight, and now they're doing it in his memory
When Showalter Field lights up those stadium lights Saturday night, Stacey Rodrigues is hoping 500 people will be circling the track fighting cancer. And she’s hoping somewhere Jack Suarez will be watching.
When Jack, a Winter Park High School student, found out he had osteosarcoma in his leg in 2016, friends rallied around him. Football player Jordan Pouncey shaved his head in solidarity.
He never lost his sense of humor, said Rodrigues, who is organizing the Winter Park Relay For Life this year.
“Even when he lost his hair, he still had a smile and was still positive and goofy,” she said.
Friends started a GoFundMe page to pay for shots that he needed to fight it, raising more than $10,000 for cancer treatments. Sixteen-year-old Danielle Allison started organizing.
“I got as many people involved as I could find,” she said. “Most of my friends will be there [Saturday].”
Nolan Cartier, 18, decided to volunteer. He remembered playing little league with Jack, who stayed in sports through high school.
“Jack was always an athletic kid,” he said. “To see him have that taken away from him, poof, it was gone. It was shocking.”
Through January, support for the first year of a new Relay event at Showalter was growing.
Every year, Relay for Life events around the country raise money for the American Cancer Society.
They’re usually held at a high-school track, with participants circling for hours, while games, music and events play out on the infield. Survivors walk the track, too, cheered along during a special part of the night. For those who didn’t make it, luminaries light the track in the dark.
It’s a big undertaking to put together, Rodrigues said. But it’s worth it when the day comes.
“It’s like a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle,” Rodrigues said.
It got a bit more scrambled when the field was being torn apart in a massive renovation to the stadium. Because they didn’t know when it would be done, they couldn’t schedule their event.
“Normally, you start planning your event in August or September, but we weren’t sure when the facility would be done, when the track would be put down,” Rodrigues said. “Normally what would take eight to nine months to plan, we’ve been doing since the end of December.”
But they made it anyway, just in time. They’re still short on participants. Organizers are hoping for 500 to 600, but even 100 would be a victory, Rodrigues said. She’s hoping before the event that more people realize it’s affecting more people every day, and they’re younger than some might think.
“We’ve found that there are multiple kids who’ve been diagnosed with cancer who have attended or attend Winter Park,” Rodrigues said. “It can happen to anybody. It doesn’t discriminate.”
With that message in mind, students got involved, too, volunteering to organize and help raise money. Many will be circling the track come Saturday.
Nolan and other Winter Park students will be out there at 8 a.m. Saturday helping set up, but the event officially kicks off at 3 p.m. At 9 p.m., when the stadium is cleared of tents, they’ll be circling the track in the dark, the inner lane ringed with candles.
The school already had been working throughout January to throw a pep rally for Jack. The Powder Puff girls football game was coming up. The school was going to make it a combined pep rally and birthday party, a few weeks before the Relay event that was inspired by him.
The news came Jan. 21 that Jack wouldn’t be at the pep rally. He wouldn’t be at the Relay event either. It would be in his memory.
“Everyone’s really rallying around this because of Jack,” Nolan said. He was just a few weeks shy of his 18th birthday.
“In all my years, I had never been to a funeral for a child,” Rodrigues said. “There were more than 300 people in attendance, from his high school, the community. To see these kids all come together because they were so saddened by the loss of their friend, and to see how much they’ve done with fundraisers since then, it’s really amazing.”
Saturday night, they’ll fight back for Jack.
“It really is about coming together to kick cancer’s butt,” she said.
Relay for Life
WHEN: 3 p.m. Saturday, April 1
WHERE: Showalter Field, 2525 Cady Way, Winter Park