Junior personally connects with Relay For Life event after losing mother to cancer

Sara Naatz and Jordan Huesers, Managing editor and feature editor

The light radiates through the darkness, reminding Relay for Life participants of the struggle and the loss.

One single luminaria seems to shine more brightly than the others.

Silently, junior Mary Ster allows the glow from inside the white paper bag to envelop her face.

In memory of Kathy Ster.

Mary remembers.

Five years ago, doctors diagnosed Mary’s mother Kathy with leukemia for the second time. She had been cancer-free for five years prior.

Her family was forced to move to Minnesota to pursue the best possible treatment.

Mary, her father and two older sisters lived in an apartment, visiting the hospital regularly to support Kathy.

“The second time being in the hospital was hard,” Mary said. “It was a lot of help, a lot of going there after school. It changed a lot, but we made it work. I got to spend a lot of time with her, even though it was in the hospital because of her bone marrow transplant. But that was really good — that time I got to spend alone with her.”

After several months of treatment, Kathy passed away.

Facing the devastation of their mother’s death, Mary and her sisters, Amy and Sara relied on each other for support.

“[My sisters were] really helpful through everything — just knowing they were there whenever I needed to talk,” Mary said. “I was just starting out middle school so it was a huge thing for me. Things I would normally ask my mom I’ve been able to go to them for.”

With the loss of her mother, Mary said she was forced to grow up more quickly and looked to Sara and Amy for strength.

“She, her sisters and her dad are a lot closer now,” close friend junior Megan Kuharich said. “When something like that happens, you learn to adapt. Amy, her oldest sister, is basically Mary’s mom. She watches over her and protects her. Sara is sort of the same way, but more of a friend to Mary.”

To honor the memory of her mother, Mary decided to participate in the annual Relay for Life event. She signed up as a team captain. The RFL co-chairs selected Mary as the head of the luminaria ceremony.

During this ceremony, participates remember the lives lost to cancer and acknowledge those who still fighting.

Luminaria remembers the lives lost and recognizes the lives that are still fighting.

“We knew Mary had a personal connection to the luminaria,” RFL co-chair Evelyn Davis said. “We decided to choose her because we thought she would have good insight into the ceremony and what it would entail. She has good sensitivity on what to write on the luminaria and what we should or should not do to them. She really understands the cause and the purpose.”

Mary encouraged each member of her team to sell at least three luminaria. She said she thinks the moments of silence during the luminaria ceremony remind RFL participants of the true meaning of the event.

“Everyone gets together and there are moments reflecting why we’re there,” she said. “I think it’s really important to have that because even though Relay is a really fun event and there’s a lot of stuff going on, I think it’s important that people see that is why we’re here.”

Mary said the memory of her mother motivates her to raise awareness of cancer.

“It makes me really want to get other people involved and make them know what is going on,” she said. “I want people to realize the real meaning behind it, not just going to spend the night and being with friends. I really want them to see what it’s about, and I hope they understand that.”

Kuharich said Mary’s connection with cancer creates a deeper understanding of the activities than other participants who have not had the same experience with the disease.

“The luminaria is different for her than it is for me because I haven’t been through what she has,” Kuharich said. “[RFL] is also a way to remember her mom in a positive light.”

She said Kathy’s fight with cancer shapes the way Mary takes on each day of her life.

“She has more affection for people,” Kuharich said. “She is always happy; nothing can bring her down. She is always boosting peoples’ confidences. “I am co-captain with her and since day one she has been really gung-ho. She is always encouraging people to participate.”