“Go Bald or Go Home!”

The Gilpin community comes together to raise funds for childhood cancer research

by Patty Unruh

Most people have been touched in some way by cancer – whether it is their own, a family member’s, or a friend’s. It seems especially difficult when the cancer victim is a child.

That’s why the caring folks of Gilpin County banded together last Thursday, March 16, at Gilpin County School for a head-shaving event in support of children stricken with cancer. Students, first responder organizations, and community members rallied to raise money to donate to St. Baldrick’s Foundation, an organization that exists solely to fund childhood cancer research. 31 participants got shorn in the school’s old gymnasium in front of the student body.

The St. Baldrick’s website explains the reason behind the head shaving: “We shave because kids with cancer often lose their hair during treatment, and we stand proudly bald beside them.” The true intent is to raise funds for lifesaving research so that childhood cancer may be cured.

Gilpin County’s initial goal was to raise $10,000 at its “Go Bald or Go Home” themed rally. Although that objective was not met, the group did muster $4,114 in donations on St. Baldrick’s site. Lead organizer Sgt. Kevin Armstrong of the Gilpin County Sheriff’s Office anticipates ending with $5,500-$6,000 after all the cash that was raised at the school and other donation drop-offs is tallied and deposited. That is an impressive accomplishment, considering that this was the first time that Gilpin County had hosted the head-shaving fundraiser.

Staff members at Gilpin County School were challenged by students in grades six through twelve to “brave the shave.” Classes deposited their donations in special buckets that were placed at the school for their particular teacher or administrator. Patrons of EAGLESmart (the school district’s student-staffed convenience store in Black Hawk) who donated $5.00 got a shamrock taped to the store wall in recognition.

Participants could sign up at St. Baldrick’s website and get sponsors among family members, friends, or anyone who would donate in their name. Those who raised $50 or more received a St. Baldrick’s t-shirt.

Members of the Gilpin County Sheriff’s Office, Timberline Fire Protection District, Black Hawk Fire Department, Black Hawk Police Department, Central City Fire Department, and Gilpin Ambulance Authority formed teams and challenged one another to see who could come up with the most funds. The Sheriff’s Office came in first with $1,700 raised, followed by Timberline with $1,194 and Black Hawk Police with $405. All teams gave generously.

Barbers Denise King and Bethany Truck of Sports Clips in Evergreen donated their time to do the head shaving. They did not actually shave heads, but used a clippers to give nubbins.

It was Armstrong’s eighth St. Baldrick’s event; he began ten years ago when he worked as a sergeant in Wheat Ridge. He is passionate about this cause and has missed getting his head shaved in only two years out of the last ten. “It’s my crusade,” he asserts.

As “shavees” settled into the barber chairs two at a time, Armstrong kept the flow going. He thanked the various supporters and participants and presented Superintendent David MacKenzie with a plaque from St. Baldrick’s to thank the school for hosting the event.

In between remarks, Armstrong tossed handfuls of green “Conquering Childhood Cancer” wristbands to the kids, who grabbed for them eagerly.

In 1999, Armstrong said, a group of businessmen challenged each other to give back in return for their own business success. That sparked the idea to shave heads for donations to raise funds for kids with cancer. In 2000, a St. Patrick’s Day party became the first “St. Baldrick’s” event.

Armstrong also shared a few saddening statistics. Worldwide, 300,000 children are diagnosed with cancer each year. In the U.S., more children die of cancer than of other childhood diseases. There are a dozen types of childhood cancer and countless subtypes, each requiring specific research to develop the best treatment for every child. In the last 20 years, however, only three new drugs have been approved that were specifically developed to treat childhood cancer, and less than four percent of federal funding goes to childhood cancer research.

The goal of the first event in 2000 was to get 17 people to participate and to raise $17,000. There were 19 who got their heads shaved, and $104,000 was raised. In 2002, the first million was raised. In 2003, first responders and military members joined the cause. 2014 was a record-breaking year, with St. Baldrick’s giving $27.2 million to cancer research. In 2015, as a result of research supported by St. Baldrick’s, the FDA approved a new drug to treat childhood cancer; it’s only the third approved drug in 20 years made specifically for kids with cancer. As of 2016, St. Baldrick’s has raised $200 million in research grant funding.

“Think of Gilpin County,” Armstrong urged his audience. “In the past few years, three of our students have been diagnosed with cancer.” He called Aiden Zeilbeck, a 2015 St. Baldrick’s ambassador child, forward. Aiden is a student at Gilpin, and his mother Crystal works there.

“Aiden was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 and has been in remission for four years,” Armstrong announced. The crowd greeted this news with cheers and applause.

All of the “shavees” at the Gilpin event were men, but Armstrong noted that it is not always an exclusively male happening. In 2015, he organized an event where four females got their heads shaved.

Although the general atmosphere was lighthearted, there was still a lot of emotion and a few tears from the participants and their families. Every person who got a shaved head had his reason for doing so.

Superintendent MacKenzie joined those getting their heads shaved to support the research generated by the fundraiser. “My father and a cousin passed away of cancer, so I want to be supportive due to this family connection.”

Tim Gray, who is employed with the U.S. Post Office in Black Hawk, had his hair long for the past 12 years. Last week’s head shaving was especially meaningful for him and his family. His father-in-law died of cancer in 2009; his mother-in-law is a cancer survivor. Gray had his head shaved in 2004 during his father-in-law’s chemo treatments and had not had it cut since.

Gilpin High School senior Keldon Hutcheson participated, saying of his long hair, “There are people who need this more than I do.”

Both Hutcheson and Gray are donating their hair to Wigs for Kids.

Joe Stranaly, who is with the Sheriff’s Office and has coached Gilpin school athletes, expressed the motivation of many: “It’s for the kids.”

Patrick Linnehan, elementary technology teacher, had enthusiastic student support. As the barber worked on him, the kids chanted “Lin-ne-han! Lin-ne-han!” But they didn’t want everything to go. “Not the beard! Not the beard!”

There were others who could not part with their facial hair. Brandon Daruna, chief of Gilpin Ambulance, joked, “I’m keeping my beard so my baby son will still know who I am!”

Participants were given royal treatment for their sacrifice. Each received a medal hung with green ribbon, a “Rock the Bald” t-shirt, a swag bag with moisturizer and sun screen to protect their bald head, and a coupon for a free haircut at Sport Clips. They were also treated to Dostal Alley pizza.

After his shave, School Resource Officer Lee Ramsey proclaimed, “It feels light!”

Armstrong agreed. “It’s a lot cooler. I can feel the wind!”

He intends that this life-changing event will become an annual happening at Gilpin every St. Patrick’s Day. “It’s a great way to bring the community together for a cause,” he declared. “It’s my crusade. I want the students to be passionate to make a difference in the world.”

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