Fighting Back
Central Bucks teacher and his students raise more than $1.5 million to combat cancer
by Maria Martino Evans


When ninth-grade English teacher Bill Senavaitis was in high school, he honed his service skills on student council, by painting houses and organizing 5K races. Today he uses those same skills to organize Central Bucks middle schools’ chart-busting charitable cause: The American Cancer Society Relay for Life.


Relay for Life of Central Bucks Middle Schools is the only middle-school Relay in Pennsylvania, culminating in a record-breaking event hosted each year by one of the district’s five middle-school campuses. Senavaitis leads a team of 200 CB teachers and staff, all with the goal of organizing and motivating more than 3,000 students in grades 7 to 9 at the Central Bucks School District’s five schools to raise money in the global fight against cancer, teaching the students lifelong philanthropic skills in the process.


In the past seven years the kids have raised more money than any other kids their age in the country: more than $1.5 million. Measured by the number of participants, the event has been the largest of its kind in the state for each of the past three years. In 2011, CB students who participated in Relay for Life raised more than $375,000.


Although other middle schools often host “Relay Field Days,” the Central Bucks Relay is an all-day, all-night event at one of the schools’ tracks. It includes a survivor-and-caregiver breakfast and emotional testimonials—several parents were among those who shared stories last year—as well as fundraisers at tents that crowd the track, hours of walking and music, and energy only teenagers can provide.


As night approaches, thousands of luminaries honoring those who have survived their battles with cancer, as well as their caregivers, line the oval and spell out “hope” on the adjacent hill. Last year, to mark going over $1 million, fireworks lit the sky as a treasured song—“What a Wonderful World”—reminded attendees of the gift of life.


Relay for Life of Central Bucks Middle Schools has become so successful that last year the American Cancer Society asked Senavaitis to help write a guidebook that high schools around the country could use to run similar campaigns. About half of the photos used in the book are from Tohickon Middle School.


The efforts of Senavaitis and his team help fund the battle against a disease that has forever changed the lives of millions of Americans, whether directly or indirectly. More than 11.9 million people in the United States suffer from some form of invasive cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md.


Taking Off

Nearly a decade ago many CB middle schoolers participated in the Relay for Life at Doylestown’s Central Park—a traditional overnight event that wasn’t necessarily a good fit for teens. Mike Perry, then the vice principal of Tamanend Middle School in Warrington, wanted to start something separate for the kids. In fall of 2003, Senavaitis, at the time a recent Millersville University graduate and brand-new teacher, signed on. When he began working at the newly opened Tohickon Middle School, Relay for Life found a permanent home.


Although cancer hasn’t touched him personally—“My grandmother had skin cancer before I was born and is doing fine,” he says—he now knows so many others who have some form of the disease.


“I love interacting with the survivors—such a good and hopeful group of people,” he says. “One of the survivors I met early on spoke at our school and said she was thankful for her cancer because it allowed her to meet people and go places and do things she wouldn’t have done otherwise.”


In 2004 seven survivors participated in Relay. Today more than 500 are involved. Senavaitis, who now lives in Sellersville, says he can see that when the students hear such stories, they “get it” and are moved to action. With guidance, students are expected to form teams, plan and execute fundraisers and walk all day.


In the weeks preceding the Relay, the district is teeming with bake sales, car washes and fundraisers of every stripe. One girl, collecting at a local shop, even got a $2 donation from Alecia Moore, the Doylestown-born singer more famously known as Pink.


During the Relay event itself, many students sell food or fun items at their tent. Others raffle off baskets of donated items. One team sold Mother’s Day cards. “We tell the kids, no matter how clever you think you are, by May someone has already done it,” Senavaitis says.


He is particularly proud of his team at Tohickon; 90 percent of the school’s students participate. “There are 1,100 kids here, and 1,000 do Relay,” he says. “I think the reason so many kids here [participate] is because Tohickon was a new school” when the program took root and the other schools in the district already had charitable events of their own.


Senavaitis knows Relay isn’t the only cause in need of support locally, and he goes out of his way to thank the business community in Doylestown for its support. Even though many business owners have been asked to lend their support all year long—to offer a percentage of profits or let students sell something in their store, for example—they still say yes when the kids come calling.


Senavaitis and his team, it seems, are teaching them well. 


Maria Martino Evans is a writer and PR professional in Pipersville.