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Annual Relay for Life dinner celebrates cancer survivors
Pastor Terry Walton speaks at Relay for Life dinner
Purple T-shirts were distributed to cancer survivors at the Relay for Life dinner Tuesday night. - photo by Kristen Oliver

A handful of children gather at Terry Walton’s feet for a puppet show.

It’s a normal scene at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, but these aren’t normal children.

They’re strong. They’re resilient. They’re survivors.

Relay for Life of Hall County hosted the annual survivors celebration dinner Tuesday evening at Gainesville First United Methodist. More than 200 guests were in attendance, more than half of whom were cancer survivors.

“Relay is all about survivors,” said Relay director Rena Pendley. “That’s why we relay. So we bring the survivors, their caregivers, their families — anybody they want with them — here tonight to feed them dinner, give them a little information about relay, and really just give them a night of fun.”

Walton, senior pastor at the church, served as the special guest speaker for the dinner. He performed a puppet show for children and shared the story of his wife Sharon’s cancer diagnosis last year.

“May 22 is a big day in our life,” Walton said. “May 22, 1975, I took my wife on our very first date. … Little did we know, 40 years to the day later — when we’d planned a big day to celebrate 40 years since our first date — we would be called to the doctor’s office because something had shown up on a chest X-ray that didn’t quite look right.”

Walton said he and his wife heard what so many survivors have heard. There was a tumor on his wife’s kidney, and it had metastasized to her lung.

“You know, don’t you, what we went through in that moment,” Walton said to the hundreds of cancer survivors present. “You’re stunned. You imagine the worst.”

But Walton said not all obstacles are bad, and some are an opportunity to create something good.

“There’s something about grasping obstacles and allowing grace to turn them into opportunities,” he said. “It’s spiritual, but it’s also therapeutic. It has been for us.”

Walton asked the children who gathered at the bottom of the stage for the puppet show “Do you know how much God loves you?”

One child raised his hand and said, “100 percent.” Another said “102,” and another shouted, “a billion.”

Finally, another said, “There’s not even a number.”

“You know, I am amazed,” Walton said. “You guys get it. Even though sometimes life throws you curves, and sometimes life gives you challenges in your family, in your life and in your friends lives, that does not negate how much God loves you.”

The survivor dinner was free to guests, and all food and materials were donated by local businesses. A committee cooked and served the food.

“That’s what tonight’s about,” Pendley said. “It’s just so we can celebrate and serve the survivors.”

The 2016 Relay for Life will begin at 6 p.m. May 13 at the University of North Georgias Gainesville campus, 3820 Mundy Mill Road in Oakwood.

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