John Taggart, a 2 1/2-year-old cancer survivor, was awe-struck at the increasing number of shaved heads around him.
At a UCLA bar filled with cheering Laker fans and laughing college students, John sat in the arms of his mother, Tamara, his cherubic face beaming as he pointed and rubbed the light blond fuzz on his head.
“Look, another guy! Yeah, they all have heads like you!” his mother cooed.
John, seemingly unaware of the incessant clang of glasses or the climbing basketball score, smiled and absorbed every detail before him: the humming buzz of the clippers, the cacophonous applause for the man in the chair, the lazy drift of hair as it floated to the clear plastic sheet on the floor.
In front of him a group of men and women waited to have their heads shaved in support of children undergoing chemotherapy. They were all participating in a St. Baldrick’s Day event, a fund-raiser for the National Childhood Cancer Foundation that is gaining popularity across the country.
John, of Costa Mesa, who lost his baby hair while undergoing five rounds of chemotherapy this winter, seemed amazed that others would voluntarily lose their hair. His mother shared his astonishment.
“It’s great that people choose to go through this,” she said. “He didn’t have a choice.”
St. Baldrick’s Day was born as a local charity event three years ago in New York, and has since branched out across 33 states and into five other nations. Individuals sign up to get their heads shaved at events held in the weeks around St. Patrick’s Day, and then find sponsors. Events are held everywhere from bars to churches.
The fund-raiser is the brainchild of three Irishmen from New York City who wanted to spend St. Patrick’s Day doing something nobler than just drinking green beer.
After a Sunday golf game, Tim Kenny, Enda McDonnell and John Bender began reflecting on their good fortune. Kenny challenged his friends to shave their heads in a sign of solidarity with cancer patients, and soon they were finding sponsors and getting their favorite pub to host.
Their ultimate goal the first year: find 17 shavees and raise $17,000 on March 17. Instead they found 22 men to shave their heads and raised $100,000. So far this year, there have been more than 2,400 shavees in 126 locations, raising more than $1.7 million for cancer research.
“It was a grass-roots organization, and we got it off the ground very quickly,” McDonnell, 35, said in a thick brogue. “Now it’s turned into this phenomenal organization.”
The three friends have enlisted their business contacts and brought in corporate sponsors. Firefighters around the country have also taken up the cause, and celebrities are starting to join in the fun, including Jay Leno, who stopped by the North Hollywood fire station to shave some heads.
The founders’ goal, McDonnell said, is to make the annual event “like the New York City Marathon” and continue to build its size and scope.
McDonnell said the founders chose to donate the money to the National Childhood Cancer Foundation in part because of the organization’s low administrative overhead. According to organizers, 94% of money donated to the foundation goes directly toward cancer research and treatment. Because of this, the foundation is one of 25 organizations in the country that have received an A+ rating from the American Institute of Philanthropy, a national charity watchdog group.
Headquartered in Arcadia, the foundation is the fund-raising and grantee support for the Children’s Oncology Group, a network of 235 cancer centers around the nation, including 22 in California. Established in 1955, the group is a cooperative research network that runs clinical trials to find new therapies for children with cancer.
Each year, more than 12,000 children and teenagers are diagnosed with cancer in the United States, and each year 2,300 of them die, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Sandy Willson-White’s son Zack, who was diagnosed at 4 with Wilms’ tumor, a type of kidney cancer, became a part of that statistic. After numerous operations, chemotherapy and radiation, doctors told her and her husband, Chris, that nothing more could be done. Zack died in 1994 at age 6. This year the couple shaved their heads and hosted an event in Redondo Beach.
“It’s devastating to hear that there is no more treatment [available] for your child,” said Willson-White.
Amy Dilbeck, 22, was diagnosed at age 15 with an aggressive form of bone cancer. She had a titanium rod implanted in her leg and, after 1,000 stitches and several months of chemotherapy, doctors gave her a clean bill of health.
Dilbeck, the first childhood cancer survivor to work for the foundation, said people shaving their heads in solidarity with cancer patients can help children feel less isolated during chemotherapy. She said she still remembers when, at the ego-fragile age of 16, a man in a movie theater ridiculed her bald head as a poor fashion statement.
“This is where awareness comes in,” she said. “Maybe the guy who didn’t know has seen a fireman or a guy in a bar [with a shaved head] and now he knows. That’s what this is about.”
St. Baldrick’s has been the foundation’s most successful fund-raiser to date, and it shows no signs of slowing down, organizers said. The event at UCLA’s Maloney’s on Campus raised $6,000 and drew in shavees who just happened to be walking by.
“My dad’s gonna freak!” said Craig Bilsky, 27, of Los Angeles as he watched his curly brown locks disappear from his scalp. “I’ve never had my hair cut this short. I look like my father’s boot camp picture!”
Bilsky’s friends and co-workers cheered him on, yelling and snapping photos as he grimaced under the shaver.
Dilbeck also cheered throughout the night, laughing as the plastic sheet became a mosaic of hair.
Young John Taggart, who just months earlier had a tumor the size of a grapefruit removed from his abdomen, continued to stare and point at those getting their locks sheared.
Catching sight of him, Dilbeck smiled and motioned her head in his direction with a knowing nod.
“He’s 2 years old, and he gets it,” she said. “How encouraging for him.”