23rd September 2018
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‘I don’t know how we did it – we only set out to get a few teams’

, by , in Features

“I HATE asking people for money.” So said Belle Spence, the driving force behind the cancer fundraiser Relay for Life, which has now raised nearly £80,000.

Belle and her committee planned the event with sterling help from many volunteers in this, their second relay and Shetland’s biggest single-event fundraiser.

For Unst woman Belle, this year’s event was even more amazing than the first, which saw a record-breaking £45,000 donated.

Then, Belle said: “I don’t know how we did it – we only set out to get a few teams but it just blossomed.”

This time, the number of teams had doubled with a fifth of Shetland’s population being present on the night.

But in spite of the event’s success she said she does not intend to organise another one. It is time to hand over the baton to another group and merely act as an adviser, she said. “My house and garden are being neglected and I’m due another two grandchildren this year. It will feel odd not to organise it but I had to make a decision.”

Without Belle’s love of a challenge the two Relays for Life are unlikely to have taken place at all. When working in accounts at RAF Saxa Vord, she embarked on her first goal of the marathon Up Unst Run, which she decided to do in memory of her mother, who had died of cancer.

That was in 2004, and grand­mother Belle, then aged 51 and already fit from playing badminton and squash, started a training schedule on the treadmill at the leisure centre, duly completing the marathon in four hours 53 minutes. Taking lots of fluids was the secret, she said, plus the secret weapon of jelly babies.

After that someone suggested the London marathon. “It was the furthest thing from my mind, but it nagged me and the stupid idea wouldn’t go away. I went on the internet and applied, like a fool, but I didn’t tell anybody. I got accepted and did it for asthma research and raised £7,000.”

She did the Up Unst Run again in 2005, then the 95-mile West Highland Way in April, and intends to do the Moon Walk walking marathon in Edinburgh tomorrow in aid of breast cancer, in memory of friends and relations who have died of the disease.

And, incidentally, she has just been involved in the Unst regatta, of which she is treasurer. “I need a challenge – now I’ll have to think of something else.”

The recent relay was certainly that for Belle, now a grandmother of six. “Nobody has any idea of the work, I was answering emails after midnight.”

It was made all the more difficult by living in Unst. The team of helpers, which included Elizabeth Johnson, also from Unst, Ann Moore, Rhoda Watt, Olive McCleod, Kay Johnson and Kim Coutts were a ‘godsend’. And special thanks were due to Clickimin’s Robert Geddes.

As well as the paperwork, there was the money to deal with. Belle walked as much as she could during the night, disappearing at regular intervals to check the money. Thanks to her love of accounts, she was not fazed by having to remove large wads of notes from donation buckets at regular intervals through­out the event, counting them and stashing them in a secret location. She could not manage the buckets of coins, however, each containing hundreds of pounds, and carried half the amount at a time.

A spirit of generosity seemed to suffuse the event. Local bands played, local businesses donated food and non-alcoholic drinks, people baked, made sandwiches and cooked, and even a visiting furniture business, Gillies, which happened to be holding a sale on the same day, donated £200. “Now I’ve got lots of thank you letters to write,” said Belle.

But the event had a serious purpose, of course. “It gave folk who have lost someone to cancer something to focus on. It is not easy to be reminded, but it does help – the emotion is still there, even after a long time.

“I found the night rewarding and people were getting something out of it. Curing cancer was the main aim of the whole thing and there will be a cure.”

The overnight relay will not easily be forgotten by other members of the committee either.

Elizabeth Johnson, whom Belle said deserves special thanks, did so much hard work on the first relay that she was well-equipped to help with this one. She organised the local bands and the visit of celebrity Nick Berry, and together with Olive McCleod, who did a lot of work behind the scenes, helped with the survivors.

Thanks also go to Belle’s daughter and son-in-law, whose shed she used to store the 1,500 T-shirts required on the night. Now the committee has to send the extras back, together with all the bits and pieces, such as banners.

The all-important task of sending the money away will fall to Belle. She now has to send the paperwork to Cancer Research UK, and it has to balance with the money. Every penny raised will go to the Cancer Research Relay Fund – Belle and Elizabeth held a restaurant night and raffle in Unst earlier in the year to cover expenses.

But the real stars are those who took part in the walk, said Belle, including Kiera and Andrew Niven, who travelled to the event from Unst in spite of their disabilities.

The next event in the fund-raising campaign will be a raffle – details next week.

As we went to press the total stood at £78,000. The cut-off date for donations is 20th June.

About Rosalind Griffiths

I am a Shetland Times reporter covering news, including health stories, and features. I have been in Shetland for more than 30 years.

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