This year’s senior first class at Vestavia Hills High School is on track to raise more than $1 million for cancer research. Each year they’ve planned a set of events to fundraise Relay for Life, and this year’s seniors got to help revamp the organization to have a more local community focus and add new events under the new name RISE. As they gear up for RISE Day on April 12, we talked with the Chairs Ben Barrentine and Mary Hanlon Hunton and Co-Chairs Avery Richardson and Douglas Thompson about being change agents in the community. They said to make sure you know the whole community is invited for what is essentially a giant block party with music, food, games and a kids’ zone at VHHS on April 12 too—just as they invited everyone to their Concert for a Cure and Rebel Run in March. Donations can be made at

How did Relay for Life transition to RISE?

Ben: Last year in the Youth Leadership class we had a project to come up with a new name for Relay. (Our teacher) Ms. (Kym) Prewitt came up with RISE: Rebels Impact through Service and Engagement.

Mary Hanlon: We wanted to make the organization more local. We decided give to the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center since a lot of people in our community go there if they have cancer.

What were your impressions of Relay for Life when you were a freshman?

Avery: I think it was cool to see the entire school and community come together. As a freshman you didn’t really have a place (yet), but you had a place with this fundraiser. Most people in Vestavia have been affected by cancer in some way, so it’s a hopeful feeling to know we are making a change.

Why did you personally want to get involved with this cause?

Avery: My grandfather passed away from cancer four years ago, and I wanted to see if I could make a difference in that in any way.

Douglas: My grandmother had breast cancer and beat it, and my grandfather was a geneticist at UAB. So it’s cool to be able to give back to UAB.

Ben: Both my grandfather and my grandmother died from cancer, and my uncle got it this summer. My older sister was a Relay chair, so it’s run in our family and I wanted to keep it going.

Mary Hanlon: This summer my aunt got cancer, and that’s when I got really involved.

One of your fundraising events this spring was a Character Breakfast. What was that like?

Douglas: We got more than 40 people on RISE committees to dress up as a superhero or princess. Ben was Prince Charming, I was the Hulk, Avery was Dorothy. You got to see all these kids come together, and a little boy who is undergoing treatment right now for cancer was there. It’s a reminder of why we are doing it, why I got painted green and it didn’t come off for three hours.

What moments from RISE Day stand out the most?

Douglas: At the end of the day each year we all get together and have the closing ceremony to reveal how much money we raised. It’s pretty emotional and cool to see how much money we raised.

Avery: The most indescribable part is the lighting ceremony when we have 2,000 luminaries in honor or memory of someone who had cancer. They light up the track, and we all walk around.

Ben: The whole day you are bouncing through the range of emotions. You have the best time of your life and laugh with friends, and then you are crying over stories about people’s struggles. Someone in our grade’s sister had cancer and talked about it, and it brought so many emotions for us.