Cancer Center Community Crusaders committee members and friends of Gail Harwood stand beside the pink cat being raffled off as part of the community-based
Cancer Center Community Crusaders committee members and friends of Gail Harwood stand beside the pink cat being raffled off as part of the community-based art project, from left, Paige Kwasniak, Wendy Petitt, Rep. Mary Morrissey, Sandra O’Neill, Erica Rogers and Joanne Holden. (Tom Momberg)

BENNINGTON -- The Cancer Center Community Crusaders committee will hold its inaugural event on Saturday, May 31, to celebrate cancer survivors and to remember those who lost the battle to cancer, particularly former committee member, Gail Harwood.

"Really the whole day is in her memory," Joanne Holden said. "Because this is our first annual event and Gail was a big part of this, we only thought it was right to honor her this year."

Harwood died at the age of 62 in January after a long battle with cancer, during which her colleagues say she continued to be the strongest and most energetic person they knew. After retiring from her long-time career as a teacher at Molly Stark School, she continued to be involved in the greater Bennington community.

"She came to all our meetings ... She still had all this energy that she had invested for so many years and that did not change at all. I think that was the inspiration for all of us to continue doing what we're doing," said Erica Rogers.

The Cupcake Crusade and Community Remembrance Day on Saturday will take place from 2 p.m. to dusk on the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center campus, 100 Hospital Drive. There will be a cupcake competition, dunking booth, food vendors, music, basket bingo, Cleo the Clown, a bounce house, slide and bouncy horses maze.

"There will be a number of children's events. Being that she was a teacher, and touched so many lives of young folks in our community," said Rep. Mary Morrissey, Bennington 2-2.


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"There's something for everyone: Lighthearted and in the spirit of what Gail would have wanted."

The cupcake competition will be voted on by a panel of judges, but samples are available so the public can vote on the "crowd favorite." There must be a unique ingredient in each competing cupcake, of which each of the 16 crews of the community crusaders contribute. Each crew will have cupcakes at a booth they built for the event.

The crews have grown in number since the crusaders conception last year, ranging in membership from just a few to over 40 people. "One of the crews is in Gail's name because she had a large team in Relay for Life for years," Paige Kwasniak said.

The 46 members of the largest crew "crusade" in memory of Harwood: They call themselves "Gail's Gang." Wendy Petitt said Harwood affected many people's lives in positive ways, which is one reason "Gail's Gang" has been very effective in raising funds. "People knew her for different reasons, whether it was children or in friendship: As a mother, as a grandmother, as a survivor," she said.

Throughout the past several months, each crew has solicited money from friends and neighbors, held raffles to sell homemade quilts, restaurant promotions, bake sales, tag sales and business sponsorships to raise money.

With more than $30,000 raised between the collective crews, those funds in addition to the money raised on Saturday will go to local cancer support. Seventy-five percent will go to local families and current patients going through treatment to cover associated costs that insurance doesn't cover. The other 25 percent will go to the Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center's patient resource fund.

As the crusaders wrap up the Saturday event, a community remembrance and candle-lighting ceremony will be held just before dusk. From a torch, Harwood's husband, James Harwood, and family will light the first candle in remembrance of Gail Harwood. The family will spread the flame to all those that take part in a large closed circle.

The crusaders committee anticipates many of Harwoods students to be a part of the ceremony. "The kids were important to her she's touched a lot of lives," Sandy O'Neill said.

Holden, Rogers, Morrissey, Kwasniak, Petitt and O'Neill are members of the crusaders committee or were close friends of Gail Harwood. They will be at the cupcake crusade and candle lighting ceremony to make sure things run smoothly.

There will be a National Cancer Survivors Day celebration held by SVMC on Sunday for cancer survivors and their families on the hospital campus.

Contact Tom Momberg at tmomberg@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomMomberg