SEBRING - It's an event that helps in the fight against a disease that indirectly affects Mary Lou Simpson and many of her neighbors and residents of Highlands County.
For the past 13 years, Mary Lou's sister, Kim Armstrong, who lives near Toronto, Canada, has battled breast cancer. That's one of the reasons she and her husband, current benefit chairman Neil Simpson, have worked diligently over the past 10 years to get involved and eventually help coordinate the annual Tanglewood Residents' Cancer Benefits.
The 2014 Tanglewood Residents' Cancer Benefit Finale will be held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Feb. 18, at the Tanglewood community's circle and clubhouse grounds, 3000 Tanglewood Pkwy.
Since starting in 2000 as a single-day event, now in its fourteenth year overall, the Cancer benefit has been a multi-day awareness festival since 2007. From November through Feb. 18, 16 different events have been held on different days, culminating in the Finale.
Myron and Linda Pickering, Tanglewood residents since 1998, began the festival as a simple party for their friend and neighbor, Bill Stottlemeyer, who had lung cancer and had just returned to Florida for the winter. Although he died from the disease June 1, 2001, the cancer benefit festival continued to develop and grow.
Myron chaired the benefit until it was taken over by Ton DiGrazia and Tom McKeever in 2007 and said he's glad to see its longevity in the effort fighting cancer.
"I'm amazed at how far it's gone from just welcoming a friend back to the park for the winter. It's good to see so many people involved," he said.
Over the years, the event has raised about $430,000 for cancer research for the American Cancer Society.
Sitting at a table in his Tanglewood home, Simpson, in his fourth year as event chairman, said it has taken a steering committee of a dozen residents to organize the events and hundreds of volunteers to keep them in order. He said the benefit attracted about 1,500 people overall in 2013 and expects to exceed that this year.
"It started small in our camping area. It has really grown in its ability to reach out to more people and involve more people," said Simspon, a retired elementary school principal originally from Toronto.
This year's event series began Nov. 21 with a kick-off concert by the Sebring High School Show Choir and five Heartland Idol 2013 finalists. Since then, 14 other events were held, including a fashion show, bicycle ride, pickleball, tennis and shuffleboard tournaments, a variety show and two lasagna dinners.
New at the 2014 event was the "Tastes of Tanglewood" sponsored by the Tanglewood Cancer Support Group. At the Jan. 29 gathering, 114 attendees paid $10 each to sample dishes concocted in their neighbors' kitchens.
The series continues Wednesday with a luminary lit-candle gathering at in the Tanglewood clubhouse at 7 p.m. The guest speaker at the luminary at 7 p.m. will be Dr. Vincent Carifi from the Florida Hospital Cancer Institute. After the a guest speaker, the luminary lighting will take place around the community circle.
From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday, a "Drive for the Cure" will be held in front of the clubhouse. There, visitors can choose a car from Avon Park's Bill Jarrett Ford to test drive and the company will donate in $10 for each car test driven.
Following the festival day finale Feb. 24, a check presentation will be held at the Tanglewood clubhouse at 9 a.m. in the Tanglewood clubhouse during the community's weekly coffee, where as many as 400 people are expected to attend, said Simpson. Representatives from the benefit's sponsors will attend, representatives from the "sponsor of the week," Heartland Bank, will be presented from 8:40 to 9 a.m. and Tanglewood Activity Director Janet Ortberg will address the audience, followed by Simpson.
Lee Ann Hinskey, the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life of Sebring coordinator, has volunteered for Tanglewood's benefit for about nine years. A member of the Highlands County Unit Board representing the American Cancer Society of Highlands County, said it's inspiring to see Tanglewood's 14-year interest in the fight against cancer.
"It's just awesome; they all come together as a community. Cancer affects everyone. You might not care much about the American Cancer Society or Relay for Life, but next week someone you know may be diagnosed," she said. "It's just neat what they (Tanglewood) do."
Relay for Life Highlands County begins April 5 and 6 in Lake Placid; April 11 and 12 in Sebring; and May 3 and 4 in Avon Park. For information, see www.acsevents.org or call (863) 214-8166.