Endurance. It’s a word familiar to runners, but it’s also one often used with cancer patients. Cancer calls for endurance, from diagnosis through rounds of treatment to the physical and emotional effects cancer has on both the cancer patient and their loved ones. When an Arkansas family experienced the devastating effects of cancer, they decided to do something positive to counteract the difficult journey and pass on joy to others.
In 2016, White Hall High School basketball coach Marc Stringer was diagnosed with esophageal cancer at 33. Known as Stringer to family and friends, the coach faced 16 rounds of treatment, with his wife Lauren as his main caregiver. Lauren’s mother, Misti Coker, wanted to do something to help encourage both Marc and Lauren, but she didn’t live in the same town and knew many of their close friends didn’t live nearby, either. Misti decided to contact Lauren’s friends and family to set up JOY mail. She asked each person to select a week and send something joyful to the couple in the mail, whether it was a card, a gift, flowers or another way to support them during this tough time.
After that first JOY mail experience, Misti knew other people struggling with cancer needed to receive JOY mail as much as Marc and Lauren. She created PASS ON JOY with that in mind. The instinct to help others is something Misti practiced in a long career as a teacher. Born and raised in Stuttgart, Misti taught elementary school, junior high English, secondary reading and worked as the literacy director before she left teaching and became a life coach. “I am a natural-born encourager, motivator and fixer,” Misti says (misticoker.com).
Her natural ability to cheer others kicked into high gear with her son-in-law’s cancer diagnosis. When Misti was working with her students to raise their literacy test scores, she and a colleague often said each student needed their own personal pep rally. The idea that everyone needs a cheerleader and support team to overcome any obstacle they’re facing, led to the founding of Personal Pep Rally, a 501(c)3 organization that exists to support and educate cancer patients and their families through a difficult time. Misti believes in the team approach to cancer treatment, and so did her son-in-law. “Stringer was a six-foot-six, two-sport all-state athlete who knew the value of team,” Misti says. “Everyone who has cancer needs a personal pep rally – a cheerleader, a team cheering for him, and a team approach to cancer.”
Personal Pep Rally reaches cancer patients across the nation through Joy Mail, and it’s all funded through Pass On Joy and Endure the Dirt, a 5K obstacle course and mud run entering its third year. The race is a wet, muddy course on the flat land in Stuttgart, in Arkansas County. The race gives participants a quick snapshot of what cancer patients have to endure every day as they tackle obstacles. This year’s race will have 16 obstacles, all in memory or honor of a cancer patient. The course will also feature almost 200 course signs to honor loved ones battling cancer.
The first Endure the Dirt race saw 250 participants. In 2019, 388 runners endured the course. This year is on track to become the biggest event yet. The event also offers a kiddie corner and a mini-mudder for children ages 3-11. Participants and supporters can also purchase a flat of Cajun Buck’s Crawfish to enjoy at the event or buy a flat online. The race will be held March 14, 2020, on the land surrounding Mack’s Prairie Wings in Stuttgart. You can sign up online to compete, participate in the fun run, or even be a virtual participant. The race also has a race day sign up.
The Endure the Dirt 5K Cancer Mud Run isn’t your typical race and go home kind of event. Many of the volunteers and participants have been affected by cancer. “It’s so emotional at the finish line,” Misti says. One participant thanked her for the event, saying it was the one day out of the year people remember her father, who lost his battle with cancer.
A group of women called the Chemosabe Sisters, cancer survivors or those enduring cancer right now, will hand out medals at the finish line. The group is also active with Pass On Joy. They meet every third Monday of the month to pack the Joy Mailboxes for those battling cancer.
The week after the Endure the Dirt race, Pass on Joy is opening a store at their location at 1920 S Main Street, Suite 105 in Stuttgart. Visitors can browse and purchase the items available to fill boxes of Joy Mail. Joy Mail can be sent to anyone. “Everybody needs joy. By packing a box for anybody, you are sending a box to a cancer patient,” Misti says. The business model allows regular sales to fund the extra boxes sent to cancer patients. The store will include a gift-wrapping station and a wall with photos of the cancer patients who have received Joy Mail.
To date, Joy Mail has been sent to over seventy cities in Arkansas, 28 states, and even Canada. Anyone can nominate a cancer patient for Joy Mail. Email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org with the cancer patient’s name and address.
There are plenty of ways to get involved with Personal Pep Rally and help pass on joy. If you’re not able to participate in the Endure the Mud Cancer 5K, the race is still accepting volunteers, or you can participate virtually. Donations can be made through Personal Pep Rally to help support Joy Mail, or you can purchase a box of Joy Mail for someone and support a cancer patient, too.
Through the non-profit organization Personal Pep Rally, the group has also been able to give scholarships to high school seniors affected by cancer. The first scholarships went to all seven seniors from Coach Marc Stringer’s White Hall High School basketball team. Throughout his battle with cancer, Coach Stringer hardly missed a game. His athletes were in the fight with him and saw firsthand the effects of cancer. This year’s scholarship is open to any high school senior in Arkansas who has been affected by cancer.
Marc Stringer lost his battle with cancer on January 24, 2020. Although it is heartbreaking for the family, Misti Coker will continue to run Personal Pep Rally and Pass on Joy to help other families enduring cancer. “If it hadn’t been for Stringer, it would never have started,” she says. “It goes back to keeping that memory alive. We’re carrying on with what he started. We’re going to continue to keep his name alive.”
To learn more about how you can help those affected by cancer or to pass on joy, visit passonjoy.com and personalpeprally.com. Keep up with Endure the Dirt videos, pictures and race day information on Facebook, and follow Pass On Joy and Personal Pep Rally on Facebook and Instagram.
Photos courtesy of Misti Coker and used with permission.