Relay for (Second) Life

HealSpring 2008
Volume 2
Issue 1

Fundraising to fight cancer is flourishing in Second Life, a virtual world where peopl's created characters live an alternative "life"

In 2005, Fayandria Foley left her doctor’s office after learning she had melanoma.

“I walked out to the parking lot and I just sat there. I sat there waiting to die,” she says. “I felt like it was a death sentence, you know? I completely froze, and the wind was knocked right out of me.”

Ironically, from her vantage point Foley could see a local school where people were circling the track as part of the American Cancer Society Relay for Life event. Soon, Foley found herself on the sideline. “I remember standing there, totally void of emotion. These people were dealing with cancer. They all were walking to celebrate those who are fighting cancer, like me.” Before long, Foley was drawn into the group, where people gave her information and encouragement. “I walked a few laps, talked and cried with some kindred spirits.”

When she left for home to tell her family her news, she knew that she wanted to get involved in Relay for Life.

Relay for Life began in Tacoma, Wash., in 1985 when Gordy Klatt, MD, a colorectal surgeon, created the first 24-hour run to raise funds for the American Cancer Society. Friends and family paid $25 to run with him and he raised $27,000. Since its inception, Relay for Life has raised $1.5 billion with around 4,800 relays now held nationwide.

Foley found her chance to get involved in 2006 when she co-chaired a Relay planned for summer 2007. She formed a committee of four women that started signing up teams — ending with 43 teams of 12 members each.

Foley enlisted a design team to decorate the area, and 15 days before the Relay she invited the teams to make their own creative additions. About three days before the event, the public was encouraged to walk around the area. They could donate money, look at the various teams, and get an overall feel for this particular Relay for Life. “If there was a perfect world, then this was it,” Foley says.

Foley’s Relay was a perfect world — one made possible by the Internet in an online realm called Second Life (, where everyone can be someone else. Foley (who prefers to be referred to by her in-world name) chaired the third annual Second Life Relay for Life held on July 28, 2007. She is continuing the role for the 2008 SLRFL, which is scheduled for July 19-20, 2008.

“I thought, ‘Wow, a computer game! I can actually do that!’ ” says Foley.

Becoming a resident of Second Life requires downloading the Second Life program and creating your “avatar,” or in-world persona (see sidebar, next page).

SLRFL began in 2004 as a collaborative effort between the American Cancer Society and a Relay volunteer who wanted to use the Second Life platform for hosting a Relay, says RC Mars, the in-world name for Randal Moss, the society’s director of futuring and innovations.

“We began work on the event in December 2004, and the 2005 SLRFL took place the end of August the following year,” Moss says.

Even though she is active in real-life Relays as well, Foley says she felt the online Relay was a natural extension of her current efforts. “A Relay for Life is a Relay for Life, no matter if it is overcrowded, sparse or completely done online,” she says, adding that SLRFL was as good a way as any to put cancer awareness in front of as many people as possible and get those people involved with Relay.

And, in addition to all the traditional Relay moments from the real world, such as the survivor lap and closing ceremony, the online Relay offers some unique aspects — the beachwear and pajama laps; crazy hair laps; or carry or wear something to represent your country laps. There is even a bald and beautiful lap. Avatars from around the world walked around the 512-acre track (consisting of 32 Second Life islands), and, according to Foley, presented “a sight to see” in their unique clothing, all purchased online.

“In a virtual event, there is liberation of creative expression from volunteers,” adds Moss. “They are able to create and build amazing tributes that they would not be able to craft in the real world due to restrictions on time, money and, sometimes, even the laws of physics.”

The online fundraising events for the SLRFL include those that might be seen in a real community, such as live and silent auctions, a dance, a fashion show, door-to-door requests, in-kind donations, etc. But online the traditional can be done with a twist, such as a kissing contest where the pose has to be held to win, or a fashion show where everyone wears purple, or by selling your hair. ACS collects money on Second Life through a network of kiosks placed throughout the simulation. An avatar will donate money and it will be collected into a central ACS online account. According to Moss, the overwhelming majority of donated money comes from the individual teams through their own dedicated fundraising events. The teams also recruit walkers in Second Life.

Foley laments that she couldn’t be everywhere at once during Relay, even though she wanted to be. “But we walked laps. We walked a lot of laps,” says Foley.

“We had contests for people who walked the most laps, and we also had people who trotted around the track with horses they either created or bought on Second Life. No one got trampled during SLRFL, so that is always a good thing.”

One SLRFL participant hooked his real-life computer to a treadmill, so that whenever he walked, his avatar would walk — 23 miles on the treadmill or 84 kilometers in-world. Participants also helped with various fundraising events in-world, such as a specially designed “Jail an Avatar” event for one team, and the ever-popular Giant Snail Races. Usually, winners of the Giant Snail Races get Linden dollars (the currency used in Second Life), but in this case, every Linden penny was donated to the ACS.

Individual team captains also hold mini-events (date auctions, fashion shows, music concerts, fairs) to raise awareness and publicize the event in-world.

ACS’s Moss says the size of this Second Life community is comparable to a large metropolitan area. “We have the tools and the urgency to drive health-related information as quickly and efficiently as we can to as many populations as we can reach,” says Moss, adding that the online platform allows for interactive experiences that help people become more aware of the importance of the Cancer Society’s health messages. It also provides a way for those who cannot physically take part in a real-world relay to participate.

“The Second Life platform empowers those who may not be able to physically participate in Relay due to their health to come and walk in our virtual Relay. They can participate and enjoy the event from the comfort and safety of their home, or even their hospital bed.”

Lisa Sowers, diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003 and known as Synergy Devonshire in-world, took part online after being disabled a number of years ago by a car accident that required facial restoration.

“Last January, when SLRFL ’07 began to recruit teams, we made the decision to participate. Being a survivor myself, I felt very comfortable jumping in for the cause,” says Devonshire, who has just been named to the 2008 planning committee.

“We post monthly cancer awareness campaigns throughout Second Life, listing the appropriate warning signs, lifestyle changes and healthy living suggestions,” Devonshire continues.

“We also offer the Survivor, Caregiver and Buddy networks as a support tool to connect people worldwide. My goal is for individuals to be proactive, rather than reactive, to their care.”

Beginning in 2007, SLRFL had a permanent place in-world with the creation of an American Cancer Society island, which came about, Moss says, when volunteers asked for an island to drive the ACS mission.

“We consulted a number of volunteers on what features they wanted on the island and even held a design contest. The firm that won the bid for the construction of ACS Island, Infinite Vision Media, built it at no cost.”

The island opened to the public right before Relay for Life 2007 started the last weekend in July.

The American Cancer Society uses the space to develop and promote mission-related education, awareness and patient service activities for Second Life residents, Moss says, adding that the ACS encourages community groups whose focus is cancer to use the space for meetings and events free of charge.

“We feel that it is important to be active and engaged in the Second Life community as a resource and an online community partner, not just as a fund­raiser,” Moss says.

The SLRFL team continues to outperform its goals each year. “Over the last three years, the SLRFL has grown by leaps and bounds in terms of participation, as well as funds raised,” says Moss.

The Second Life platform empowers those who may not be able to physically participate in Relay due to their health to come and walk in our virtual Relay.

In 2005, the final fundraising tally was $5,000. In 2006 SLRFL brought in $41,000, and in 2007 ACS projected $75,000 but raised $118,500.

Moss says that as the population of Second Life grows he hopes the ACS will be able to reach out to more and more constituents.

SLRFL volunteer committees have not yet set the goals for 2008, but they have already started preliminary planning. “Our volunteers are dedicated and love what Relay stands for,” Moss says.

“The fact is that we want to successfully involve as many people as we can to drive our lifesaving ACS mission.”

For more information about the 2008 SLRFL visit