Thompson explains how the manufacture of Relay for Life luminaires has evolved | Community

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Rob Hillesland Summit-Tribune

Forest City Hy-Vee customer service employee Lana Thompson has been helping others for as long as she can remember. It’s not just in the local grocery store that dates back to ownership by the Korth family, but also by the Winnebago County Relay for Life.

Relay for Life assists and supports people with cancer. It raises funds and awareness for the global fight against cancer. For more than a decade, Thompson led the annual design and production of Forest City’s Relay For Life pocket luminaries, adding personal, handmade touches to each.

Thompson said it’s a beautiful sight with rows of bright light fixtures lining the storefronts on Clark Street in Forest City. She said it was good to see the luminary tradition become even more personalized, memorable and colorful over the past decade.

Thompson said the importance of luminaries has really increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, even when the number of teams has plummeted. She reported that around 600 to 700 luminaries have already been artistically created for this year’s event. She and a group of her friends who work on the project are selling them now to raise money for the good cause. Some of the fixtures can be seen in Hy-Vee store windows at this time of year.

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“Hy-Vee is very supportive of helping us sell them there,” Thompson said. “I’m grateful for that.”

Thompson and Kristin Formanek, both of Forest City, are co-chairs of the Winnebago County Relay For Life Luminaries Committee. Band members include Cindy Wooge, Lori Dontje, .Jodene Bartleson, Becky Counts, Connie Graber, Judy Harringa, Sharon Swanson, all from Forest City. Tiffany Olson, Marvella Blome and Lonnie Arnevik are members from the Thompson area.

The friends gather at Thompson’s house to create the hundreds of light fixtures in his basement, which is set up as a craft station for months at a time. They get together for a fun supper hour, then tinker for a few hours once every two weeks, starting in March each year. Many of the women are cancer survivors themselves or have “cancer ties” to loved ones, she said.

“We all have ties to people who have had cancer,” Thompson said. “It means so much to people with cancer. That’s one of the reasons I keep doing it.

Thompson and her husband, Kevin, are both invested in this year’s event. Kevin’s sister, Karen Squier, is battling cancer and his mother, Darlene Thompson, is a breast cancer survivor. The Thompsons have a 30-year-old Japanese mini-truck that the band uses for promotion and much of their work.

“It’s like an ATV, but it’s a real mini-truck,” Thompson said. “It will be at the Relay for Life. We will carry things in it. The girls are so excited about it. The back is like a van. We use it all the time on our farm.

Thompson’s definition of luminary is a paper bag decorated and hand-calligraphed with the name of a loved one. It is lit at dusk, using a battery-operated candle that is placed inside. They are “in memory” or “in honor” of loved ones who have suffered or died from cancer, she noted.

“I had a friend named Nancy Rassman, who died young of cancer when I worked at Bill’s (Family Foods),” Thompson said. “It pushed me to get involved and stay involved.”

Fixtures have evolved from simple white bags to colorful, artistic creations that capture the personality or interests of the loved one for whom the fixture is chosen. Hundreds of bag choices are available. Some themes are agriculture, sports, hobbies, hunting, flowers, butterflies, cardinals, and crosses, to name a few. Magazine clippings, spray paint and glitter glue, three-dimensional stickers, and traced and original artwork are also all options.

“Women are encouraged to have fun and create whatever they want,” Thompson said. “Some are more artistic, some do lettering, some organize and sort, it all comes together into a very productive and beautiful group effort. We started by putting stickers on the bags. The stickers got more extensive and every year we just did more things. We will use clip art from magazines or postcards. Many of them are drawn. They are so varied because of the way we do it.

Thompson is a calligrapher who learned the craft from a professional calligrapher many years ago. She calls it a lost art of doing things the old fashioned way. She makes hand signs with just a brush. She also makes photo boards. Her artistic talents carry over to the light designs, and she’s not the only member of the group to create unique lettering. She noted that Tiffany Olson does a different style of lettering. Olson taught graphic arts at Waldorf University.

The luminaries are $10 each and 100% of the donation goes to the Relay for Life event, which raises money for the American Cancer Society. Forms are available at the Forest City Hy-Vee where the fixtures are on display to facilitate fixture selection and payment. At least 200 luminaires are present in the windows and categorized into boxes for easy selection. The money, shape and fixture can then be handed over to the customer service desk.

Fixtures can also be ordered by calling Lana directly at 641-860-1789. There are 400 or more luminaries ready at Lana’s house to replenish supplies or use for special requests. She said there were lots of choices and they were all unique. At the end of the evening, the luminaries can be recovered by the people who bought them or the members of the committee. Co-chairs Thompson and Formanek said they are grateful to their extended families, who help clean up each year. The supplies used by the committee are donated by the members themselves or by outside donations.

The Winnebago County Relay For Life will take place July 15 from 5 to 9 p.m. on Clark Street in Forest City.

“Light fixtures will be lit at dusk with battery-operated candles,” Thompson said. “People are encouraged to walk along the sidewalks and see the luminaries and the names of the people they are honoring. It is truly a beautiful and dazzling sight to see so many luminaries. Last year there were approximately 350. Please come see the luminaries and join in the fun of downtown Forest City and also support the Winnebago County Relay For Life.

The food trucks will be in town and the Boy Scouts will have their food tent available. Hy-Vee Grill will be set up in the food truck area and will donate proceeds to Relay For Life. Puckerbrush activities will also take place. A band will perform from 8-10 p.m. and Pyro Pete’s fireworks will begin at 9:30 p.m.

Rob Hillesland is Community Editor for the Summit-Tribune. He can be reached at 641-421-0534 or by email at [email protected]

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