COLUMBUS — Lime green has been sprouting up in Columbus. At school and in area businesses, locals have been sporting the bright color du jour on Fridays this spring.
Their “glow in the dark” T-shirts — between 250 and 300 of them — signify community support for the town’s youth Relay for Life team, which has earned recognition as the Billings Relay’s top fundraising youth team for the past two years.
“It’s amazing a youth team can raise so much,” said Karrie Erickson, community relationship manager for the American Cancer Society. “That fact becomes even more impressive when you realize the Columbus team has only been participating for the past three years.”
So far this year, the team’s tally is approaching $5,000. With two major fundraisers yet to go — a golf tournament Tuesday and a car wash June 19 — the group hopes to net several thousand more before the July 9-10 Relay. Last year the team raised just $10 shy of $7,000. All together, it has contributed nearly $20,000 to the cause.
“We’re a pretty competitive group,” said Brett Mitchell, who advises the Columbus teens. “That’s why we raise so much money.”
Of course, it’s not about the money but what the money can do in the battle against cancer. Tim Yeager and Isaac McNally, who co-captain this year’s youth team, know that fact only too well. Both Yeager’s mother and McNally’s mother were diagnosed with cancer several years ago. Shelly Yeager, who helped organize the group, is currently in remission. Lynette McNally, who enthusiastically supported their efforts, lost her battle this year.
“There were so many kids in this area whose families were touched by cancer,” said Shelly Yeager, listing several other parents and teachers.
The Columbus teen group came together in the spring of 2007. Caitlyn McGinnis, the team’s first captain, was inspired by her mother Cindy, who works for the American Cancer Society. Caitlyn describes early efforts as “disorganized.” Then the group created its own momentum.
“Some people randomly decided to show up,” she said. “Then those few members drew more.”
“The 15-member limit didn’t apply to us,” laughed Jake McNally, Isaac’s brother and one of the founding members. “We got as many people involved as we could.”
The Columbus Cougars Relay for Life Team is not school-affiliated, but enjoys support from school administration and staff. Adults have assisted, but Shelly Yeager says the effort is student-driven.
“The kids are mainly doing their own thing,” she said. “They come up with ideas and — boom! — in a week they have it done.”
Yeager also praises former members for their ongoing dedication. Three of the founding group — McGinnis, Jake McNally and Shanta Bisch — continue to participate even after graduating. McGinnis and Bisch organized a team at the University of Montana and Jake will walk this year with the team sponsored by Hertz, where he works.
“These kids have done something,” Yeager said. “And it’s not short term.”
Although the Columbus team’s roster hovers between 15 and 25, its efforts are bolstered by a community that rallies behind their cause. Teachers, waitresses and even local bank employees don their fluorescent green T-shirts on Fridays. In addition to supporting car washes and haunted houses, they purchase wrist bands, raffle tickets and luminaria.
This year, the American Cancer Society estimates that 3.5 million men, women and children will participate in more them 5,000 Relays for Life nationwide. Last year, only three of the 174 teams that walked the track in Billings qualified for the youth category. Erickson would like to see more.
“The relay wouldn’t be the same without the Columbus team,” she said. “They are great kids and the excitement and sense of fun they bring to the Relay in contagious.”