Shelby Offrink wheeled her way toward an ocean of pink, pushed along in her wheelchair by her husband, Ben, younger daughter Hazel on her lap and older daughter Maeve by her side. She had been here several times before, at the Pink Arrow Pride benefit football game at Lowell High School, but never like this.
Never as one of those with cancer.
But here she was, dressed in a pink T-shirt and surrounded by hundreds of others bearing the names of loved ones who survived or succumbed to cancer. Diagnosed in February with a rare and incurable cancer in her spinal cord, she suddenly found herself on the other side of her hometown’s annual outreach to cancer patients.
Her husband, too. Ben was diagnosed recently with a recurrence of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“It’s very odd for me to have other people helping us,” said Shelby, 30, a 2002 graduate of Lowell High School. “I like to be able to help other people. I almost feel like we don’t deserve everything everybody’s done for us.”
That’s been a lot: people bringing meals, providing laundry and yard service, sending cards and telling Shelby they are praying for her. All are part of the support offered by Pink Arrow Pride. Now in its seventh year, the fundraiser has given nearly 350 gifts of $500 apiece to people on the cancer journey like Shelby and their families.
For Shelby, the outpouring of support hit home as she looked around at the Pink Arrow game Sept. 5, seeing former teachers and friends in the milling pre-game crowd.
“It’s really great to see all the people who have helped me become the person I am,” she said. “It’s overwhelming.”
Persevering Through the Storm
This year’s Pink Arrow Pride was nearly washed out by a rain and lightning storm that delayed the game by 90 minutes. The downpour sent students huddling into the high school and forced organizers to cancel the opening procession of cancer survivors.
But despite the deluge the Lowell players’ jerseys burned bright pink as the Red Arrows handily defeated Chicago Hubbard, then gave the jerseys to those they honored with names on their backs. Organizers feared many of the honorees had been chased away by the storm, but every one returned for the post-game ceremony.
“I was just blown away,” said Teresa Beachum, lead organizer of the event’s volunteers. “When the all-clear was given, I couldn’t believe the sea of pink that returned to the stadium. It was absolutely incredible.”
About 8,000 T-shirts were sold at the game and two local retail stores, Beachum said. Though fundraising totals are not yet known, the event has raised some $1.2 million over the past six years, she said. Funds provide assistance for families and support a Lowell chapter of Gilda’s Club.
Bonds Last for Years
Waiting out the storm before the game, Kelly Stanger said she received two $500 gifts following her 2010 diagnosis with breast cancer and a subsequent surgery. She and her son, Blaze, who held her hand four years ago as she went on the field to be honored, have returned every year since.
“It put a very good spin on the whole thing for me as a kid,” said Blaze, 16. “It made me feel it was all going to be OK.”
Kelly wore the signed jersey of the player who honored her that night. “During a time that was difficult for Blaze and I, this was something positive,” she said. “It’s an incredible thing they do here.”
Nearby, Trent Sheppard recalled his experience as a Red Arrow football player, standing on the field while the names of cancer patients were being announced.
“It’s humbling,” said Trent, a 2013 graduate and Davenport College student. “It just gets to you, knowing these people aren’t alone in this fight.”
Inside the school, Lowell and Chicago Hubbard students jammed the stifling cafeteria with cheers and music. Alyssa Lynn snaked through the crowd wearing a jersey bearing the name of her late Uncle Bill, who died from cancer, and her mother, Kathy Rozman, who is in remission.
“It’s amazing to see everyone come together,” said Kathy, a lifelong Lowell resident. “Just seeing this makes me happy.”
A Small Town Embraces its Own
Shelby Offrink waited out the rain under a tent where volunteers sold T-shirts. She reflected on the turmoil of the past year, after she and Ben moved back home in November thanks to a job relocation from California. She was excited to be back near her parents, Roger and Kathy Tomczak, and her friends from high school. She was her senior class salutatorian, played basketball and softball and served on the student council.
Then came February, the numbness in the leg, and the doctor’s words, “You have cancer.” Following surgery, radiation and chemotherapy she lost feeling from her ribs down. She has been in a wheelchair since March.
“I have no choice but to be strong and face it head-on,” she said, her eyes tearing up. “We’ve been trying to live life as much as we can.”
Whatever the future holds, the support of Pink Arrow Pride and her hometown has been “huge,” she said.
“You start to feel like ‘thank you’ is not enough. When I feel better I’ll have a lot of people to pay back.”