The gathering was energized and poignant, raw and emotional.
People were laughing and crying Saturday as they danced and spun on the gym floor at the Hagerstown Community College Athletic Recreation and Community Center.
Roughly 1,200 people had gathered to acknowledge loss, to celebrate life and to ignite motivation for the fight against breast cancer at the Breast Cancer Awareness of Cumberland Valley's Step 'n' Stride fundraiser.
Agency Executive Director Joan Fell said the event has nearly quadrupled in size since she became involved with it 20 years ago. What began as about 300 people doing aerobics in the gym has swollen to droves of zumba dancers shimmying across the floor and walkers striding a five-mile course around campus.
"I think the enthusiasm and camaraderie of the survivors, friends and families just lends tremendous excitement — an electricity almost — to the event," Fell said. "As the survivors walk by, I cry. It's very emotional."
Upbeat music blared inside and outside the gymnasium. Participants sported pink leg warmers, pink shoelaces, pick headbands and pink hair in a nod to the official color of breast cancer awareness. One walker strode along with a pink companion — his dyed dog.
Thomas B. Riford, president and chief executive officer of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, emceed the event, which he said raised $181,000.
Fell called the success of the fundraiser "astounding." She attributed it to the range and quality of free programs offered by Breast Cancer Awareness, and the fact that the proceeds serve local people.
Services include early-detection programs, information and resources, support groups, and providing mastectomy bras, prosthesis, wigs, and grocery store gift cards for patients while they are in treatment.
Jennifer Giffin, 34, of Funkstown, said she first heard of the agency from a friend who is a breast cancer survivor. Her friend called Breast Cancer Awareness after she was diagnosed, and three survivors went to her house to offer empathy, resources and even a wig.
"She had me in tears with this incredible story about this group, and what they did for people. She said if not for (the agency), she wouldn't have made it through emotionally. She's still in touch with those ladies," Giffin said. "I've never seen support like this, so many people joining in a fight. There is so much love."
Michelle Andrews of Hagerstown lost her mother to breast cancer nearly five years ago. She attended Step 'n' Stride for the third time Saturday to honor her mother and help other people "through the journey," she said.
"(Step 'n' Stride) blows me away. It moves me every time," Andrews said. "You feel like you are the only one when you are being affected by (breast cancer). Then you realize it touches so many lives."
Traci Davis of Greencastle, Pa. was among a group of more than 20 people from Salem Reformed Church in Hagerstown walking to support her sister, Kelly Bell. Davis said an 18-year-old man and his three younger siblings, who lost their mother to cancer several weeks ago, organized the group.
Bell, 46, of Hagerstown, is an 11-year breast cancer survivor who recently was diagnosed with the disease again. She has received support from Breast Cancer Awareness.
"I talked to ladies. They helped me clean and brought food. They give you a lot of support. Let you cry," she said. "You think people don't care, but they really do. It means a lot."