NIAGARA FALLS – Patrick Little and Cierra Edwards couldn’t make it to Old Falls Street for Saturday’s Relay for Life, the annual fundraising walk for the American Cancer Society.
Both are serving overseas with the 107th Airlift Wing.
So Senior Airman Little, of Akron, and Airman First Class Edwards, of Niagara Falls, did the next best thing: They organized a companion Relay for Life on their military base in Afghanistan, which raised nearly $7,000.
Then, they did one better.
Little and Edwards – using an iPad at Camp Bastion Leatherneck in Afghanistan – and their families – using a laptop back on Old Falls Street – connected on Skype so the two events could share their fight against cancer despite being half a world apart.
Little and Edwards were streamed onto a large video screen.
“How are you guys doing with your relay?” asked Marie Little, Patrick’s mother.
“Good,” Patrick Little said. “We’re pretty much done here, but we raised another $485.”
“That is awesome guys,” his mother said.
The effort in Afghanistan to participate in the Relay for Life began with Margie Lengen, Cierra’s mother, and Kristina Groff, Little’s sister.
Lengen,a five-year Relay for Life volunteer, told the American Cancer Society’s special events manager she wanted to stay busy this year, because her daughter would be leaving for Afghanistan in February and she would need something to take her mind off of that.
The manager, Kristina Groff, had a brother who was deploying then, too.
When Little, 22, isn’t deployed, he works for Southwest Airlines. When Edwards, 23, is home, she lives in Niagara Falls and works for FedEx.
Little and Edwards are halfway through their first deployment overseas.
The two are in the same unit, and when the connection with their sister and mother was made, they decided to stage their own relay on their military base in Afghanistan.
“It speaks to how important Relay for Life has become to them,” Groff said.
Cancer has affected Little’s mother, grandfather and grandmother, and Edwards’ grandfather also has cancer.
In about two months, the two raised about $6,000 by sending emails to family and friends. They ordered enough barbecue – with meat brought in from the air base in Ramstein, Germany – to feed 100 of their colleagues, who were expected to cheer them on Saturday.
They also held a pingpong tournament and a weight-lifting competition.
“When the two of them get together, they’re a force to be reckoned with,” Lengen said. “They have survivors in their family.”
After a few technical difficulties, the Skype connection was made shortly after 5 p.m. Saturday. Family members gathered around the camera in the laptop.
“Tell us what you did to raise all your money?” Groff asked.
“We put on a barbecue and that brought in a lot of money,” Little said. “Donations, too – just a lot of word of mouth. We’re a little shy of $7,000 right now.”
“Are you guys having fun?” Little’s wife, Lindsey,asked.
“Yeah,” Little said. “Our deejay just left so we’re about done for the night.”
It was about 2 a.m. in Afghanistan – and about 90 degrees, Little said.
“Did you do your pingpong tournament?” Groff asked.
“Yeah,” Little said. “We don’t have a winner yet.”
“Who won your weight-lifting competition?” asked Cierra’s father, Bob.
“Nobody yet,” Little said. “It’s not over.”
“It’s the middle of the night,” responded Cierra’s mother, Margie.
The connection was fine early on, but after a while only the people on Old Falls Street could see and hear the two in Afghanistan. Little and Edwards only had sound.
It didn’t matter.
“It’s fantastic,” Groff said. “We are so lucky because we do get to talk to them, but to have them here so other people can cheer them on – it’s awesome.”
The pair led relay participants in Niagara Falls in a ceremony honoring caregivers.
“Cierra, Pat, we love what you’re doing,” Ona Sherman, a Relay for Life committee member said from the stage on Old Falls Street. “Fight the fight and relay on.”
The participants in Niagara Falls cheered.
About 500 participants walked around Old Falls Street from noon to midnight on Saturday, and raised $50,000, including what was raised overseas.
The Relay for Life’s goal is to connect cancer survivors and caregivers, remember people who have had cancer and raise money that provides services for cancer patients and to fund research.
Groff, 26, has three family members who have been diagnosed with cancer, and found years ago that the relay was a way to meet other survivors and to fight back.
“Our family said ‘enough is enough,’ ” Groff said.
Little and Edwards stayed on Skype for about a half-hour before saying their good-byes.
“What’s for the rest of the night?” someone asked.
“We got to go back to work soon,” Little said.
“I’m going to bed,” Edwards added.
“We miss you guys not being here,” Little’s mother said.
“We miss you guys, too,” her son said.
“But at least we can see you,” she added. “That helps.”