LUMBERTON — Martha King feels like her family just grew by 4,000.
“It seems like we’re all coming together for one cause … it’s almost like we know each other,” she said, standing in the middle of the Robeson County Fairgrounds early Saturday morning.
King, who was joined by family and friends, including daughters and nephews, was one of a group of cancer survivors, loved ones and volunteers who spent Friday night at Relay for Life of Robeson County.
The group dwindled overnight from its peak of nearly 4,500, but — still walking laps and cheering well into Saturday morning — their spirits did not.
King, a survivor herself, was moved by sharing something so personal with thousands of strangers who filled the fairgrounds beginning on Friday morning.
“When you have a passion for what you’re doing, you stay all night, or half — whatever you can do,” she said.
King and her family also attended Relay to honor her son, Ivan King, who was killed by a rare form of cancer in 2007, shortly after he enrolled at East Carolina University.
“They told us like one percent of the population gets it,” his sister, Phyllis King, said.
After Ivan’s death, the family started attending Relay as “Team I.V.A.N.,” which stands for Inspiring a Victorious Attitude Now.
“You don’t have to be sad … you can rejoice,” Phyllis King said.
The Lumberton family also hoped to encourage others to join the fight against cancer.
“We’re here to raise money so that no one has to go through what we went through,” Martha King said.
At 9 a.m. Saturday, $176,343.76 had been raised for the American Cancer Society, although a few teams had not yet turned in the cash they earned from selling T-shirts, food and other mementos.
“We had a good year. We had a lot of people here, probably one of the greatest number of people,” said Lisa Hendren, one of the event co-chairs.
The Robeson County event is the eighth largest in the Carolinas. According to the event website, this year’s included 75 fund-raising teams and 1,360 participants. People came from all over Robeson County as well as Bladen, Columbus, Hoke and Moore counties.
“It’s because we’re so big and they hear about us, so they come see what we do over here that they can take back,” said Cyndee Brown, who works with the American Cancer Society.
Brown has volunteered with the event for more than 20 years.
“I lost my mother,” she said. “I’m out here because I don’t want you losing yours like I lost mine.”
Linda Locklear and her four sisters — all cancer survivors — came out to celebrate each other and honor a sister they lost to cancer. Locklear, Mary Chavis, Betsy Hunt, Mattie Locklear and Kathy Norton, who is still battling lung cancer, planted themselves for the evening on the side of the track with their friend Nevelyn Graham, also a survivor.
Locklear said she was emotional during the Survivor’s Lap, which kicked off a series of theme-laps overnight.
“Knowing my sisters are on either side of me and knowing my sister that’s gone is looking over us,” she said, explaining the tears welling in her eyes.
“We walked around holding each other,” she said.
The sisters said looking forward to the event had put smiles on their faces.
“It makes you feel good to know all these people are supporting you,” Hunt said.
Maxie Pittman beamed as her husband, a cancer survivor of five months, walked the Survivor’s Lap.
“I am just ecstatic to be able to see him walk the track … he’s been kind of weak a little bit but he’s building his strength back up, he’s doing much better,” she said.
In addition to cheering on her husband, Pittman also returns to Relay year after year to see the familiar faces of old friends from Fairmont as well as new ones she made at past events. This year, she brought her daughter, Julie Hodges.
Mitszi Whitaker, a captain with the Robeson County Diamond Divas and Dukes, sees the event as a celebration. This year was her eighth year participating.
“This is really dear to [Robesonians] hearts. We’ve had a lot of people in our county affected by this. The money that we raise goes back to our county — and you’ve got everybody out here that is just trying to do whatever they can to raise money,” she said.
Whitaker, along with other Robeson County government employees, set up a Wild West-style saloon where participants could ride a mechanical bull and get their photo taken.
Before the event was even half over, the team already had their theme for next year planned — superheroes.