By Phyl Newbeck
Williston Central School teacher and veteran dragon boat racer Debra Lentine has renewed motivation to compete in this year’s Lake Champlain Dragon Boat Festival and Races.
Lentine got involved with the festival in 2005 after recovering from breast cancer. This March, she was diagnosed with brain cancer, and underwent six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy simultaneously. A team of teachers and staff will take to the lake in honor of Lentine and two other members of the school district community who have cancer.
The ninth annual festival is set for Aug. 3 at the Burlington Waterfront to raise money for cancer programs in Vermont.
For Lentine, the paddling is therapeutic.
“I feel like every time I practice, I’m killing off cancer cells,” she said. Although she is undergoing a regimen of five days of chemotherapy followed by 23 days off, Lentine intends to compete in the World Club Crew Championship in Italy this September.
In addition to the Williston Central School team, Lentine’s family and friends have formed a new team called Drain Brammage—a play on words, since the tip-off to Lentine’s current cancer was difficulty speaking. Some team members are local while others are coming from far away, and several veteran racers on the Dragon Heart team have joined the team to help out those who have never paddled before.
“Dragon boat racing is very important to me,” Lentine said. “I try never to miss a practice. The paddling itself is a piece of what’s important to me, but the warmth and camaraderie of the team is the most important.”
“Deb has not skipped a beat,” festival organizer Linda Dyer said.
Lyn Porter is captaining the Williston School District Cancer Castaways boat.
“We’re paddling because three known colleagues are fighting cancer at this point,” she said. “We all know somebody who has been touched by cancer, but this year having it close to home and within our schools, it has touched us deeply. We can’t fight with them, but we can paddle for them and support them.”
The festival is capped at 64 teams consisting of 20 paddlers and a drummer, and includes several boats composed solely of breast cancer survivors. Races take place every four minutes from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. A popular part of the event is the flower ceremony, where teams link their boats together and throw flowers into the lake in memory of those who have died. Last year, the festival raised $140,000 and the eight-year total is close to $1.5 million.
Dyer describes the day as “a community festival where people team up to race for fun, fitness and charity.”
“It’s a great day and what sets us apart from a lot of other events is that it’s all about the community,” said Dyer. “It’s pretty exciting to see what the community can do to help cancer survivors.”
People can contribute to the event by racing, volunteering or simply donating to the cause.
“The money goes right back into the community,” Dyer said. “It’s what helps us do what we do all year.”
The school groups are not the only local teams competing.
Lauren Tomasi of Williston is part of a Merchant’s Bank team called Hakuna Matatas, a Swahili phrase meaning no worries. Tomasi is new to Vermont, having recently relocated from Oregon, and she said she’s excited to take part in a team-building event for a good cause. Part of the reason she and her husband moved east was to spend time with his late mother, who had cancer. In addition, Tomasi’s aunt is a breast cancer survivor. Tomasi has never been on a dragon boat but said she’s looking forward to the experience.
“I haven’t done much rowing before, and I’ve never done anything like this,” she said. “I’m excited to learn more about what my part will be and how we’ll work together. If I’m going to do something I want to be good at it.”
April Bolin, marketing manager of Windows & Doors by Brownell, has been on the company’s team, Windows & Oars, for the last four years.
“It’s for a fantastic cause and we like to give back to the community,” she said “but it’s also wonderful team building for our company. After the first year, we realized how much fun it was and wanted to keep doing it.”
The team starts with staff and is supplemented by family members. A core group of about 60 percent of the team has paddled every year. Employees host a company-wide garage sale to aid in their fundraising efforts. Bolin, who lost all four of her grandparents to cancer, said none of the paddlers had ever been in a dragon boat before the first year.
“I’m a kayaker,” she said “but paddling the dragon boat is totally different.”
She praised the festival’s organizers for helping the team learn the fundamentals and getting them started.
“It’s a really great organization,” she said. “It gives people an opportunity to get together and look at the positive side of life.”
The day’s events will benefit Dragonheart Vermont and Survivorship NOW, a cancer wellness program based in Williston, which describes itself as a bridge between treatment and recovery. Survivorship NOW has roughly 30 free classes each month in topics ranging from art and music to exercise and nutrition. Exercise classes run the gamut from traditional cardio workouts to hula hoops and are free to both survivors and their caretakers.
It’s not too late to volunteer for the Lake Champlain Dragon Boat Festival. Interested parties can go to ridethedragon.org and click on the volunteer tab. An organizer will contact them and offer them tasks ranging from bailing water out of boats to handing out flyers and maps and organizing photo shoots of each team.
“No skills are required,” Dyer said. “All you need is a smile.”
Dragon boats race for a cause
By Phyl Newbeck