Shaving Away at Childhood Cancer

Kaya Schultz, Editor in Chief

Each day, 43 children are diagnosed with cancer in the United States, tallying up to 15,590 children per year. Approximately 1 in 285 children in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer before their 20th birthday. What’s even more concerning is that less than 4% of the federal budget for cancer research is dedicated to childhood cancer. This lack of funding is seen through its demoralizing effect on children, with cancer as the leading cause of death by disease in American children.

These numbers didn’t sit well with physical education teacher, Ms. Schwartz at Redwood Elementary School in West Orange. In response, she shaved her head as a participant in a fundraiser with the St. Baldrick’s Foundation in 2009 when she taught at West Orange High School. St. Baldrick’s works closely with leading pediatric oncologists to determine the most promising research to fund and create funding priorities to make the greatest impact for children with cancer. For the last 13 years, The Shillelagh Club in West Orange has held the St. Baldrick’s event which is run by Kevin Kinney, a member and past President of the club. 

Schwartz was very successful in fundraising, raising just over $5,800 and found the experience extremely rewarding. Her contribution not only symbolized a powerful message, but her hair was also donated to the Pantene Beautiful Lengths program where it was used to make wigs for those in need. Having done such a gratifying experience, Schwartz did not count out the possibility of shaving her head again in the future.

Fortunately, she was given the perfect opportunity to do so this year. The fundraiser had the potential of raising one million dollars since it first began in 2007. Schwartz wanted to be a part of the milestone and now has children of her own, making the event even more personal. She also wanted to make sure that her kids were old enough to understand the significance of the event and appreciate the memorable moment.

Approximately 60 shavees joined her at the event, including Dr. Cascone, Superintendent of West Orange Schools, Board of Education member, Ken Alper, and one of her fifth grade students. Of the 60 shavees, only four were female. Schwartz’s four year old daughter Piper, was eager to join her, but Schwartz didn’t let her. Instead, Piper cut off almost a foot of her hair that will be sent away along with her mother’s to an organization that makes wigs specifically for children who need them.

Schwartz got an equally positive response from her students as from Piper. Before shaving her head, she prepared her students by explaining to them why she was participating in the fundraiser and its importance. Her students shared personal experiences they had with cancer through family friends, family members, and even pets. Her return to Redwood was just as rewarding. She states, “When I came back to school bald, I got a lot of waves, thumbs up, and ‘great jobs’, from so many students. Of course, I also got a lot of gasps and stares from students who were unaware of what I was doing.  I had a fellow teacher at Redwood say to me that she thought it really impacted the female students because it showed them that they can do anything.”

In terms of fundraising, Schwartz was also very successful. When she first started fundraising in April, her goal was $5,000. She achieved that goal with two weeks still remaining in the event, so she increased it to $5,500. She kept reaching her goal, so she kept increasing the amount until the event ended and she had raised $8,000! She was surprised, but ecstatic to have exceeded her original goal by over $3,000. 

Aside from raising money to help defeat childhood cancer, Schwartz claims that some of the most valuable moments of her journey came from her own kids. She states, “Teaching my son Pierson and daughter Piper that small things can make a big difference has been my goal since I decided I would participate again. The obvious feeling of pride that my daughter showed on her face when she cut off her hair and watched me shave mine and feeling all the love and support that we got from so many people is hopefully something she will never forget.  My son who is 7 was disappointed that he did not participate and says that he would like to in the future. So maybe when they get a little older, the three of us can ‘brave the shave’ together and raise even more money to find a cure for childhood cancer once and for all.”