South Side High School prepares for its second Relay For Life on June 1

Cancer awareness event to celebrate, remember those affected by the disease

Hundreds of community members attended South Side High School’s first Relay For Life last June.
Hundreds of community members attended South Side High School’s first Relay For Life last June.
Christina Daly/Herald

After a successful inaugural campaign raising money for the American Cancer Society while celebrating those fighting cancer and honoring those who have died from it, South Side High School will host its second Relay For Life on June 1.

“Cancer has played a huge part of my life, just as I’m sure it has for a lot of other people,” said South Side senior Arianna Schaden, president of the Cancer Awareness Club, which takes the lead in organizing the event.

Schaden’s aunt and grandmother both died of colon cancer, and two of her other aunts were diagnosed with cancer, she said, but the disease is currently in remission. She added that a friend of her family, Judy Tavalaro, of Oceanside, died from cancer in January. She was 53. Schaden created a team in Tavalaro’s memory.

“She came to Relay For Life last year and didn’t stop talking about it for months, because she just felt like a princess all day and had everyone there supporting her,” Schaden recalled.

Each year, more than 5,000 Relay for Life events — organized by the American Cancer Society, in conjunction with the local communities — take place in 27 countries, and benefit initiatives to fight cancer. Members of South Side High School’s Cancer Awareness Club, along with their faculty advisor, South Side English teacher Megan O’Brien, approached district officials in 2017 about hosting the popular event, and the Board of Education approved.

“When we finally got the chance to do it last year, everyone was so excited,” said Schaden, whose cousin, Giulia Pugliese, helped organize the event last year as Cancer Awareness Club president. “The faculty of South Side High School was so supportive of the idea . . . so there was kind of no question about whether we were going to have it again, because it was so successful.”

The first Relay For Life event last year raised about $55,000, earning an award for the most money raised by a “rookie” event in the region, according to O’Brien.

Though some relays are 12- or 24-hour affairs, Rockville Centre’s June 1 event will run from 5 to 11 p.m. at the high school track. It will feature a Survivors Lap, during which those who have beaten cancer make their way around the track, as well as a Caregivers Lap for those who have stood beside their friends and loved ones during the fight against the disease.

It will also include Relay For Life’s traditional Luminaria Ceremony, which involves illuminating paper lanterns and dedicating them to those who have been diagnosed with cancer. A closing celebratory ceremony is expected to last until 11 p.m.

O’Brien said students have been really invested in the upcoming event, holding fundraisers throughout the school year and spreading the word about Relay For Life on social media. In the next few weeks, she said, students will be visiting the elementary and middle schools, whose students will help the cause, from holding penny drives to making luminaria.

“It’s always just an important event to let people come together and feel they’re doing something in the face of something that can seem really, really daunting and challenging,” O’Brien said.

Last year, O’Brien’s father, Chris Neary, was the acting Northeast vice president of the American Culinary Federation, which donated food and services for Relay For Life’s survivor dinner, which took place before the event. Having lost his mother and sister to cancer, Neary was honored to pay tribute to survivors, she said.

On July 9, about a month after South Side’s inaugural Relay for Life, Neary was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He died on Dec. 9. O’Brien said the event would be bittersweet for her this year as she prepares for the event in her father’s memory.

“It’s really something special for me to watch Relay be a place where our community can come together in support of one another as we move in unison towards an incredible cause,” O’Brien told the Herald, adding that the South Side High School community has provided “an outpouring of love and support” over the last year. “For me, this second Relay for Life event is a very important part of my healing process.”

Those wishing to donate or form a team can visit At press time on Tuesday, online donations totaled about $15,500. This year’s goal is to reach $75,000, which Schaden noted was “ambitious.”

“I think we will, just because of the support of Rockville Centre as a whole,” she added. “We generally are very enthusiastic about anything that we do here.”