by Reyna Estrada / Sports Editor
As the sky transformed from pale blue to the looming grey of an incoming night, gold, red and white lanterns illuminated the crowd that gathered throughout Soldier Field for the Light the Night Walk. The atmosphere and optimism was visible even from afar, as the bright colors surrounded the guests softly and upbeat music played in the background while children danced.
Yet the harsh reality of what united the crowd glared incessantly. It was apparent in their tearful eyes and grasped hands as participants, holding gold lanterns, were invited to raise them in a moment of remembrance for those who have lost their lives to blood cancer.
As the other lanterns slowly rose, continuing to light up the cool Chicago night, the significance of each reminded the crowd of why they gathered. Gold, in memory of those lost. Red, for supporters and advocates. And white for survivors and patients.
“Five, four, three, two, one,” a cascade of participants counted down as the Light The Night Walk officially began, lowering their bright lanterns as they embarked upon their journey.
The walk is part of “a series of fundraising campaigns benefiting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s (LLS) funding of research to find blood cancer cures,” according to Lightthenight.org.
“Light The Night is an opportunity for people to gather together and work toward a future without blood cancer,” said Pam Swenk, executive director of the organization’s Illinois chapter. “Our participants are survivors, patients receiving treatment, those who have lost someone to a blood cancer, as well as community members who have joined this fight against blood cancer.”
“And we are seeing the results firsthand,” Swenk added. “Revolutionary new treatments originally discovered through blood cancer research are now being tested in clinical trials for other cancers.”
Participants can elect to fundraise for LLS as a team or an individual prior to the walk. Since the founding of LLS in 1948, the organization has invested approximately $3.2 billion in cancer research, according to lls.org. Additionally, LLS says they have contributed to 34 out of the 39 blood cancer treatments approved by the FDA in 2017 and 2018. The impact is quantifiable.
“The dollars you raise are going to help countless people live longer lives. It’s going to fund research that leads to clinical trials. It’s going to help people just like me be here for moments just like this,” Paul Baits, a Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor, told the crowd just prior to the beginning of the walk.
While the event took place on Saturday Oct.19 2019, fundraising efforts started weeks or even months prior for many participants. In addition to fundraising, some attendees said they hope to spread awareness about blood cancers.
Nicole Bullock, a three- year Non-hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor, said 2019 marked her third year attending the walk.
”As a result of my journey with Non-hodgkin’s lymphoma, I started the Nicole Cares Foundation because I didn’t know what it was before I was diagnosed and all my family and friends didn’t either. So, we’re bringing awareness, we raise money—I think we raised $2,500 this year,” said Bullock, a Chicago resident.
“In order for people to continue living longer we need more advancements in medicine and treatment. And so that’s why it’s important,” she added.
While the walk was the night’s main, there were various other features, including a live band that serenaded the crowd. Guests were also encouraged to stop by the blood drive or informational tents.
Some participants said that they enjoyed the sense of community they found at Light the Night event.
Entrenda Free, a Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor who lives in a south suburb of Chicago, said she attended the walk both for herself and others.
“It’s very important just to continue to bring awareness of what’s going on, and to be able to support others-—it takes a village,” Etrenda said. “Coming together with this positive energy and encouragement of one another, it just helps, and people know they’re not alone.”
Light the Night was run largely by volunteers who were tasked with helping set up the event, maintaining certain tents such as the lantern pick up, or simply sending words of encouragement to the participants at checkpoints throughout the walk.
Samantha Tottea, a nursing student at Depaul University worked on the “bright light” tent, which was designed to honor participants who raised $1,000 or more. Tottea and the other bright light volunteers said volunteering for LLS was a great experience.
“It really gets you out in the community,” Tottea said, “I think it’s really important to get out there and work with people in different settings than you’re used to.”
While many fundraisers walked in hopes of contributing to advancements in research and treatment, many others walked in memory of loved ones lost.
As the walk came to an end and the bright colors swarmed back into the festival grounds, among the lanterns and participants were Gregg and Micheal Oshita.
On Oct. 23 2017, Gregg Oshita lost his wife of 44 years, Robyn, to acute myeloid leukemia. He participated in the event with his son Micheal and a team of others to walk in Robyn’s memory.
“Robyn was my soulmate, the love of my life,” said Gregg Oshita, who lives in Ohio. In addition to attending events such as the Light the Night walk, they also founded Gregg and Robyn Oshita Foundation.
“You look at all these lanterns and these people and they’ve lost somebody battling something or fighting it themselves, and it’s so inspiring because you know you never want to give up. Hopefully one day there will be a cure,” said Micheal Oshita.
As the event dwindled, red, white and other gold lanterns, accompanied with the stories and memories of many others like Robyn Oshita, left Soldier Field, continuing to light the dreary Chicago night.