Engineering senior Jay Trzcinski spoke at his first Relay for Life in 1998, and attended one each year since he lost his father to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Trzcinski’s family has been profoundly affected by cancer. The disease claimed both of his father’s parents before Trzcinski was born. His mom’s father is a survivor of prostate cancer.
This past weekend, Trzcinski spearheaded his own unique fundraiser, a “tiki jail,” at the University’s fifth-annual Relay for Life. From 10 a.m. Saturday to 10 a.m. Sunday, over 2,400 participants from 160 teams representing groups of friends, student organizations, fraternities and sororities circled the track at Palmer Field for 24 straight hours to raise money for the American Cancer Society.
A self-described Jimmy Buffet fanatic, Trzcinski and his team, the Parrotheads, built a Margaritaville-themed jail, complete with bamboo bars and grass walls, next to the track. Relay participants could pay Trzcinski’s “Parrothead Police” to “arrest” their friends and haul them to the jail in a red plastic wagon, where the captives were adorned with Hawaiian leis. Before they could be released, the prisoners had to match the donation that got them thrown in jail by asking passersby for help.
Trzcinski, the fundraising coordinator for the relay’s planning team, said the Parrotheads arrested 89 people and collected $1,455, contributing to relay’s overall total of more than $267,800. The top fundraising team was Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, which presented Relay for Life with a $50,000 check at Saturday’s opening ceremonies.
The tiki jail won the award for best on-site fundraiser.
Despite being relatively new to campus, the University’s Relay for Life is among the most successful college relays in the country, said Jason Keech, an American Cancer Society official who works with the relay’s planning team. Last year’s relay was second in fundraising among the 300 college relays around the country.
Relay for Life co-chair and Business school junior Richard Lam – who was tackled by Trzcinski before being taken to jail late Saturday afternoon – said most of the members of the event’s planning team have a direct connection with cancer.
Lam, whose grandfather died of lung cancer when Lam was young, was first introduced to Relay for Life by his aunt, a breast cancer survivor.
Almost a decade after the death of Trzcinski’s father, just a few weeks before this year’s relay, his mother had her own scare with bone cancer.
“It was scary for the whole family,” Trzcinski said. “We’d already gone through it once. We didn’t want to have to go through it again.”
Trzcinski said his mom drove to the University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center from their hometown of Midland, Mich. for tests. Two days later, a doctor called her from his home phone to tell her she did not have bone cancer.
Trzcinski’s father, though, had a much different experience with cancer diagnosis.
When his father Charles was diagnosed 10 years ago, Trzcinski said doctors weren’t entirely sure what they were dealing with.
“When my dad got sick, cancer wasn’t as well known as it is now,” he said. “They thought he had a sinus infection, and they were treating him for a sinus infection for six weeks.”
Charles Trzcinski was finally diagnosed with lymphoma in May 1997. He died that November.
The difference in the speed and accuracy of his mother’s testing compared to that of his father’s diagnosis is evidence of the impact that programs like Relay for Life have had on improving cancer research and treatment, Trzcinski said.
In Relay for Life, Trzcinski said he found a place where he could release his emotions in the company of his friends and family while honoring his father and other cancer victims.
“That’s what the event’s really all about,” he said, “honoring them and raising money so kids like me don’t have to lose their dad when they’re 11.”