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A DAY TO REMEMBER

LAKE WYLIE -- Thursday was all about memories. For almost 50 cancer fighters who made them, dozens of volunteers who honored them and a family who kept one alive for another year.

Dakota's Spectacular Day on the Lake -- the third annual event that invites children with cancer and their counselors to Lake Wylie for boat rides, fireworks and enough cool water balloons to start a cold war -- greeted busfulls of guests from Charleston, Columbia, Charlotte and surrounding areas in honor of the late Dakota Gay, who died in 2009 at age 15 after battling brain cancer.

"These kids look forward to it," said Deborah "Flash" Stephenson, founder of Courageous Kidz. "We have some new kids who haven't been here, but they've heard about it."

Courageous Kidz creates special events for hundreds of children in the Carolinas struggling against various forms of cancer, offering "Dayz of Magic" along with family support in networking and counseling. For three years now the group is a familiar sight at the Lake Wylie home of Gay's mother Lannette Conder and her husband Ted. Now even newcomers to Courageous Kidz arrive expecting a highlight to their year.

"If there was nobody here greeting us, nobody excited, it wouldn't be the same," Stephenson said.

Lannette Conder brought on boatloads of friends and supporters to help with the lake day, from pontoon captains to cooks on the oversized grill feeding all the Courageous Kidz.

"It's a good day," said John Cullon, a volunteer whose son Jake was Dakota's best friend. And Cullon wasn't just talking weather. "I caught the red eye in from California last night to be here. I wouldn't miss this."

Both Jake and John Cullon steered their powerboat through an almost otherwise empty Lake Wylie, jawing with some Courageous Kidz on who could throw who off an intertube and encouraging others to try one. Volunteers even helped children like Joshua Parks, 12, find the smiles he came many miles expecting.

"I was here last year and learned how to drive a boat," Parks said. "I want to drive a boat this year."

As in past years, the day helped many children who seldom get days devoted exclusively to fun find comfort not only in a wet and wild afternoon, but in a sense of community.

"They've never met before," Stephenson said of two girls who quickly became close friends. "They've never met their counselor before. They just bonded."

Even the warm, dry weather seemed to support the events on the lake. Despite a morning migraine on the day she planned an entire year, Lannette Conder took comfort in the dozens of happy children converging on her home.

"I guess I can only get so many of my prayers answered, and I've been praying so hard lately for the weather," she said. "I guess I can live with a headache."

In the world she envisions there would be no spectacular day on the lake because there would be no cancer and no children suffering from it. Yet as long as so many struggle with varying cancers, Conder hopes to bring even more children--especially local ones--to an afternoon free from worrying about test charts and body scans.

"What's amazing is to look at some of these kids and think they have cancer," Conder said. "If you just looked at them you'd have no idea."

Which, on a day like Thursday, is exactly the idea.

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