By Jill Warren Lucas
Revised March 21, 2013
Gabrielle Kaasa does not have a child with cancer, but the thought of youngsters suffering with the disease makes her want to pull her hair out. Instead, she made a more proactive choice: for the third year in a row, she has shaved off her beautiful red hair to raise awareness and funds for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.
“It helps me to start a conversation about childhood cancer, which usually doesn’t happen otherwise,” says the Durham mother, who was so eager to participate this year that she started buzzing her head weeks before her April 27 event at the West 94th St. Pub in Durham.
“People always stop me and ask why I’m bald. I guess it’s kind of like when you’re pregnant and everybody wants to touch your belly,” she says with a laugh. “People are really touched when they find out why. It’s not at all unusual to get donations from complete strangers.”
St. Baldrick’s CEO Kathleen Ruddy is no longer surprised to hear such anecdotes. “I hear people constantly say that it’s the best thing they’re ever done for charity,” she says. “You experience a very visual aspect of what children with cancer go through. It makes it real in a way that few other activities can.”
The campaign started in 2000 with 20 people who shaved their head at a single event. Last year, more than 56,000 people participated at about 1,300 events staged in several different counties. They raised $33.5 million – 82 percent of which went back out the door in the form of grants to support childhood cancer research. This year’s goal is $37 million.
While many functions were scheduled to coincide with St. Patrick’s Day, hundreds more started early and will continue throughout year. Ruddy plans to be in Raleigh on April 13 for one at the Hibernian, traditionally one of North Carolina’s biggest events. Since the pub burned to the ground a few weeks ago, loyal head shavers will unite in a nearby parking lot.
“We’re blessed to have a lot of caring people involved,” says Ruddy, who shaved her own long red locks a few years ago. “My experience taught me to be grateful in a whole new way. You don’t have to train like you would for a marathon, but the aftermath of growing your hair is where the long term commitment is.”
While most shavees find their involvement deeply satisfying and even liberating, Ruddy says some first timers are not entirely prepared for the emotional transformation. “When the hair starts coming off, they think about what they’re doing – and who they’re doing it for.
“We try at every event to have a child who has cancer present. Some people never have met a child with cancer, and it can be devastating to see a young person fighting so hard,” she says. “It makes you feel responsible in a good way. You start to feel a mission that isn’t accomplished until they have what they need to get well.”
After her first experience, Kaasa recalls being shocked when she looked into the mirror but elated when the supportive crowd cheered her on. She remains deeply committed to the project. So are her husband and 10-year-old son, who also participate in the hands-on, hair-off campaign.”For us, it’s just nice in a way to show solidarity,” Kaasa says. “Hair is such a small part of what makes up a person. It’s one thing people tend to focus on, but it’s just hair.”
St. Baldrick’s converts event proceeds quickly into research grants focused on finding cures for childhood cancers. Its scientific advisory committee refers proposals to experts in different areas of pediatric oncology to ensure that the projects receive a rigorous and thorough review.
Ruddy says childhood cancers are grossly under-funded because the affected population is smaller than that of adults, which in turn makes is hard for pharmaceutical companies to generate enough profit to cover their research and development costs. *“St. Baldrick’s is working to fill the funding gap by providing grants to researchers so they can work to create new drugs and better treatments specific to all childhood cancers. Adult treatments cannot be downsized for children and teens; their bodies are still developing and they cannot simply just be looked at as smaller adults.”
The foundation also funds fellowships to attract more doctors to the pediatric oncology field, where a shortage is anticipated in the next five to seven years. “If we don’t have enough researchers and people who care for our kids, we’ll lose more kids and not make progress,” Ruddy says.
“I can’t even imagine losing a child to a serious illness,” says Kaasa, who lost her adored maternal grandfather to leukemia eight years ago. “He’s a big reason for why I do it. I hate to think of a child going through what he went through. If shaving my head might give a child a fighting chance, I’m glad to do it.”
*Editor’s Note: Kathleen Ruddy requested clarification of a point in the original March 18 version of this post regarding adult cancer drugs being prescribed for children. Her quote has been inserted to allow a fuller explanation of her concern.