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Bennett has deep passion for Relay

When Ray Bennett began volunteering with Suffolk’s Rockin’ Relay for Life ten years ago, he was part of the entertainment performing on two flat bed trailers that functioned as a stage.

Now, as chairman for the past two years, he coordinates the show from start to finish — and the start of each relay begins a week after the one preceding it ends.

As his involvement with the Relay has increased, however, so has the role cancer has played in his life.

“I began as a business owner just wanting to do my part in the community,” Bennett said. “I didn’t have any direct connection with cancer. Now, it has affected all of my family.”

Bennett’s father, Billy Bennett, began his battle against prostate cancer about 10 years ago and has since been diagnosed with a facial cancer.

A good friend of Bennett’s, who sang bass in his quartet, passed away from cancer seven years ago, just seven months after his diagnosis.

And Bennett’s late mother-in-law, Sylvia Cobleigh, passed away after a five-year battle against stage IV bone cancer at 9:30 p.m. the night before the Relay last year.

“A few weeks before the Relay she called and told me not to let anything stop our fight against cancer ‘to find a cure for this nasty disease so no one has to go through what I am,’ she said,” Bennett said.

Per Cobleigh’s request, Bennett, his wife, Lorrie, and their children attended the Relay the next night and his oldset son carried the torch the last lap in her memory and his grandfather’s honor.

“I showed up numb that Friday night,” Bennett said. “It was hard. It was especially hard for my wife, but we were doing what her momma wanted us to do — to fight cancer for her.”

Bennett is continuing that fight through his position as chairman by making some changes to the Relay.

“We changed some things last year, and we’re changing a few more things this year,” Bennett said. “Change is good.”

For beginners, Bennett wants the Relay to be more family friendly, which he did last year by incorporating a children’s area that will be expanded this year.

He also hopes to have more “overnighters” this year, and there are plans for changes next year, Bennett added.

A change Bennett didn’t plan occurred when the economy tanked and the Relay lost several corporate sponsors.

“I’m a business owner,” Bennett said. “I understand that the money has to come from somewhere, but we still have to make up for that loss. The volunteers have really worked hard to do that. We’ve had some great fundraisers this year.”

The proof is in the numbers. Last year, the Relay had 54 teams and 632 participants. Already, the 2010 Relay has more than 70 teams and more than 700 participants.

Bennett will also be hiking the 4.4 miles from the Hilton Garden Inn to Nansemond-Suffolk Academy, the site of the Relay, on Friday.

“It’s something new and different,” Bennett said. “Maybe we’ll get more sponsors because of it. I’m willing to try anything.”

Whether it’s logistics, securing sponsorships, organizing teams or relaying over night, Bennett’s resolve has been strengthened throughout the years.

“We’re sure that the research we’ve helped fund that the [the American Cancer Society] has done helped prolong the life of my mother-in-law,” Bennett said. “Doctors said she only had about a year, but she got a good four years. She was in pain, but she always had a smile.”