Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Heads together for cancer cure — Shavees bare it to raise money for Saint Baldrick’s Foundation

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Even though hair is being buzzed into oblivion, going bald to support children’s cancer research is a growth experience. For the shavees, as they’re called in the Saint Baldrick’s fundraiser, the literal physical transformation is mirrored by psychological ones. They get a glimpse of what it’s like to deal with a common side effect of cancer treatment and they learn about their own capacity for empathy and for making a sacrifice for the good of others.

Brain Heath, a paramedic/engineer with Central Emergency Services and one of the organizers of the local Saint Baldrick’s event, learned one more valuable lesson about himself when he dared to go bare — he really doesn’t look good bald.

“I really was afraid. I thought my head would look a lot better bald than that. It was pretty traumatic for my wife,” he said.

Heath helped launch the first Saint Baldrick’s event on the central Kenai Peninsula three years ago, as part of the local FOOLS of Fire chapter. The Fraternal Order of Leatherheads Society is a nationwide firefighters organization, and chapters often put on fundraisers for Saint Baldrick’s, where people collect monetary pledges to have their heads shaved.

Money raised for the Saint Baldrick’s Foundation goes to fund pediatric cancer research. Since the foundation began seven years ago, Saint Baldrick’s events have raised more than $51 million with more than 73,000 shavees in 48 states and 18 countries, according to information from Heath.

On the central peninsula, local firefighters, public safety and law enforcement personnel have embraced the Saint Baldrick’s cause. Not only is it raising money for a vital purpose, but also it’s also a unique event to be involved in, Heath said.

“It’s fun and it’s an outgoing event. There’s lots of stuff going on,” he said.

“Another thing is, with the shaving of your hair, it’s kind of a personal thing that you can go out there and show people, and people will ask about it. People will notice that there’s 15 people that are standing around with their heads shaved and they start to wonder why their heads are shaved and you can talk about it. ‘Great, this about Saint Baldrick’s Foundation, this is what it does to support research in children’s cancer,’ and that’s something that I think people can get behind.”

About 50 people stepped up to the clippers for the first event held here three years ago, and hundreds more stepped up financially to encourage them. The event raised $18,000, when organizers were only shooting for $10,000. Last year’s event raised $27,000 surpassing the fundraising goal of $20,000. This year the bar is set at $30,000.

The number of people involved has grown each year, as well. Last year saw about 100 people waiting to be shaved, and the conference room at the Soldotna Sports Center was packed with people there to watch and donate, Heath said.
Seeing the variety of people wanting to be involved has been the most memorable and moving part of Saint Baldrick’s, he said.

The first year, a grandfather with long white hair brought his grandkids to watch him get his hair shaved off, which he then donated to Locks of Love, which makes wigs for people who’ve lost their hair from cancer treatments.

“They said they didn’t recognize him. Their whole life he’d had really long white hair and they didn’t recognize him,” Heath said.

Then there was a former assistant fire chief, who said he was going to grow his hair really long when he retired. He did, then had it shaved and donated to Locks of Love.

“We’ve just had people who have heard about it and wanted to come in. One guy had some really nice dreadlocks. He said he heard about this yesterday and didn’t raise any money. He brought in like 25 dollars, but he decided he wanted to do that. We ended up raising a few hundred right there, like $300 just for that guy, just for his hair from passing around a hat,” Heath said.

There have been at least two women each year who have shaved their heads, including one woman who drove all the way from Valdez both years to participate, then she got back in her vehicle and drove home the same night.

“Every year there’s something pretty amazing in there,” Heath said.
Groups of school kids have also gotten shaved, some because they have classmates or friends who have cancer.

“It’s not a really big area, we all know that, but there are quite a few kids that are undergoing cancer treatment or just had their cancer in remission that are in the local area,” Heath said. “We’ve had kids that had their friends going through cancer treatment, so that was a big thing for them to come out and raise awareness and support for their friends.”

Heath had his head shaved the first year.

“It is really a strange change. I’ve had my hair short usually for most of my life, but the bald part is really, really different. Just the way everything feels. It’s way colder, amazingly colder, like walking around with a hat off. Yeah, it’s weird. Your whole identity kind of changes.”

Heath had long sideburns for many years, and several other firefighters getting shaved that first year left their facial hair intact.

“We looked like monks,” he said.

Off came the sideburns and beards, even for a friend who didn’t want to go totally bare.

“He walked around like that for a while before the rest of us forced him to go back and shave it off,” Heath said.

A cadre of local, professional barbers and hairstylists donate their time to do the clipping. Anyone with hair 10 inches or longer can donate it to Locks of Love at the Saint Baldrick’s event when they go up to get their head shaved. People can sign up to be a shavee and gather pledges in advance, or go to the event to get shaved or make a donation. There also will be a raffle for donated prizes. To sign up to volunteer or to donate in advance, visit the event’s Web site, http://www.stbaldricks.org/events/event_info.php?EventKey=2009-56.

Heath said there’s always a need for volunteers, even if it doesn’t involve becoming bald. There’s also a pressing need to spread the word and encourage donations this year.

“I can definitely see — pretty much everyone across the board can tell — people’s ability to donate to things has decreased significantly the last six months to a year,” Heath said.

This year’s Saint Baldrick’s fundraiser will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Soldotna Sports Center conference room. Heath hopes, in spite of trying financial times, to meet the group’s fundraising goal and to have at least another 100 people come face to face with their own, newly unobscured faces.

“The event itself is really what makes it so much fun,” he said. “It’s so amazing to watch all these people go up and come away physically changed in just a few moments. You definitely remember it afterwards.”

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