Relay For Life – Event Themes

Relay For Life is the flagship event of the American Cancer Society. Every year, communities across the United States and around the world join together to raise money and awareness for cancer research and programs to help Survivors and their families. Teams fundraise during the entire year, and then spend a night camping out (usually on a high school football field) and walking on a track.

Relay has long been one of my favorite causes, over the course of eight years I was a participant, team captain, committee member, and event chair for a local event. During that time I created numerous documents and graphics for each event, and in later years, developed a different theme for each event.

Event timelines can vary in each location; some events are twelve hours others last a full 24 hours, just like the first event. The events I volunteered with all followed an 18 hour timeline, changing a bit over the years to meet the needs of the community. No matter how different though, each event has an Opening Ceremony, Survivors’ Lap, Luminaria Ceremony, Fight Back Ceremony, and Closing Ceremony.

My favorite events are those which have a strong theme for the whole event: one which is present in each hour, in the Fight Back Ceremony, and throughout the planning process (meetings, etc.). The point of having a themed Relay is to create a feeling of whimsy and joy during the event, which is necessary for a large group of people getting little sleep during an emotional time.

“25 Strong, Let’s Dance All Night Long”

Since Relay was founded by Dr. Gordy Klatt in 1985, 2009 was considered the 25th year in the United States. When I joined the committee, they had already decided on a dance theme. I started out at Luminaria chair, but quickly became the Logistics chair as well, so worked with the Entertainment committee to develop and implement themes and activities for each hour of the event.

Were I to redo the Dance theme now, I’d make a few changes, since each hour wasn’t completely within the theme. This is a decision which really depends on the event itself. I’d also make sure the activities were more connected to the theme.

View the PDF here: Lap Themes 2009

“Partying Our Way Through Relay”

This was the first theme I thought of (though I’m sure others have had a similar idea). The concept was that since Relay is an all night event, we should really make it a huge party to help keep the energy up. Again, as Logistics chair, I worked with the Entertainment committee to further develop the theme.

Many of the Laps ended up being similar to the previous year, which isn’t a bad thing, as it makes costuming easier for returning teams. I would have liked a little more outside the box thinking with this one: “Tupperware Party” would have been a hilarious hour, for example.

View the PDF here: Lap Themes 2010

“Over the Rainbow at Relay”

2011 was a great year for me; my son was born, and nine days later, pulled off my first Relay as Event chair. I also got to completely dream up the theme, laps, and activities. While I’m also a supporter of Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, I became a Relayer because I wanted more awareness for the other kinds of cancer as well. “Over the Rainbow” was developed to highlight these other cancers. Each hour was devoted to a different type of cancer: participants could dress in the color of the awareness ribbon for that cancer (or participate in the alternative theme) and we made announcements about these cancers during the night. Additionally, the Fight Back Ceremony was a remake of the Wizard of Oz, with the cancer which being defeated by Dorothy throwing a bucket of “Hope” on her.

This was also the first year to have a new layout on the Lap Schedule. I had previously found that participants needed ideas or a place to start brainstorming for their costumes, or that they weren’t sure what the activities meant.

View the PDF here: Lap Themes 2011

“Red Carpet Relay”

I love movies, so it only stands to reason that eventually they’d find their way to an event. Again, I got to develop the theme, laps, activities, and ceremonies, so I included them across everything as much as I could. The Fight Back ceremony was a twist on the Breakfast Club, replacing the iconic ending (a brain, an athlete, etc.) with “each one of us is a Participant, Team Captain, Committee Member, Survivor, and a Relayer.”

We held fewer activities during the night, since we realized that everyone (the committee included) needed to have some downtime. This turned out to be a good idea, since we got hit with a huge thunderstorm in the early evening. Note: always have an emergency & evacuation plan! Everyone was safe, and it turned out to be one of my favorite events to date.

View the PDF here: Lap Themes 2012

“Relay Carnival”

In 2013, I handed the Event chair title over to another committee member, who had always said Relay should feel like a carnival. I took that idea and ran with it! Again, we scheduled fewer activities during the night to allow teams to have down time or host individual events at their campsites.

View the PDF here: Lap Themes 2013

“2014: A Relay Odyssey”

We had settled on the idea for an outer space themed Relay at our Wrap-Up meeting from 2013 and tossed around a number of title ideas for it including “To Relay and Beyond.” My favorite piece was that the Fight Back ceremony would be an epic battle between the “Red Shirts” from Star Trek and Jedis with purple light sabers from Star Wars.

View the PDF here: Lap Themes 2014

Other Theme Ideas

  • Change the Channel on Cancer: TV shows or genres
  • Turn the Page on Cancer: Books/Magazines
  • Relay Holidays: Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Halloween
  • Around the World at Relay: Laps representing different countries, ask teams to decorate their campsites as other nations

Please use any of the ideas here for your own Relay For Life event, or any event for that matter. If you’d like help brainstorming or adapting the Lap Schedule document to your own needs, please contact me!



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