FORT WALTON BEACH — Okaloosa County might not be the most populous part of the United States, but its fundraising capacity for cancer research is unsurpassed.

Officials with the American Cancer Society announced late Thursday afternoon that the four Relay for Life groups in the county raised the most money per capita in the nation in 2012.

“My main message today is thank you,” Cal Brooks, the Panhandle’s executive director for the American Cancer Society, said shortly after the announcement. “This award, to me, says a lot … No one is ahead of y’all in this fight. No one.”

The Relay teams in Crestview, Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Niceville raised a combined $524,560 during their events last spring. They even made a few individual fundraising accomplishments, according to Shelly Miller, the operating chair for the American Cancer Society Emerald Coast.

View a slideshow of last year's Relay events.

Out of the more than 350 Relay teams in Florida, Crestview was ranked 24th in fundraising and Fort Walton Beach moved up to seventh place.

Those rankings helped push Okaloosa County to tops in the country for the first time. Most of the credit goes to the people who serve in volunteer leadership roles, Miller said. 

“We are at great gratitude for all your hard work, for making these events happen,” she told volunteers who gathered in the Relay for Life office in Fort Walton Beach.

Relay for Life is a worldwide annual event that calls for people to spend a night walking or running around a track to raise money for cancer survivors and research.

All the chairs of the local events said they saw increased participation in 2012 and hope to see even more in 2013.

“Let’s beat this cancer, right?” Miller said at the end of the news conference. “And raise some money.”

Contact Daily News Staff Writer Katie Tammen at 850-315-4440 or Follow her on Twitter @KatieTnwfdn.