At what point does something become a tradition?
For Wilton High School, the evening of Tuesday, March 7 is the culmination of an annual volunteer ritual raising money for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. Each year, a team of students spends months campaigning and fundraising for the fight against childhood cancer. In exchange for donations, 37 high schoolers will leave vanity behind and make a conscious choice to shave their heads in solidarity with children unable to make that decision for themselves.
One of those students is sophomore Annie McMahon, participating for the first time in the St. Baldrick’s event.
“Seeing the children on the St. Baldrick’s Foundation website is one of the reasons I want to shave my head and raise money for a cure. I want to show kids that lost their hair that I support them, and through my efforts bring hope to their family and friends,” she said.
While most of the participants each year typically are boys, girls have joined as head shavees in past years. This year, McMahon is the only girl, and she hopes her involvement will serve another purpose — that her actions may inspire other kids to leave their fears behind and step out of their comfort zones.
“If I can do something out of the ordinary like shaving my head and be confident with my decision, maybe seeing me will help kids find their courage and not worry about what others think,” she said.
Directed Research Matters
More children are lost to cancer in the U.S. than any other childhood disease combined. Since the first head-shaving event in 2000, St. Baldrick’s Foundation has evolved into the largest non-government funder of childhood cancer research grants, raising well over $50 million with more than 390,000 heads shaved in 18 countries.
Today, 85% of children with cancer will survive for five years or more because of recent treatment advances versus just 58% three decades ago. For St. Baldrick’s, funding research specifically targeting pediatric cancers serves two purposes — helping to find cures for over a dozen types of childhood cancers and improving the quality of life for patients and survivors who face chronic or life-threatening conditions from cancer treatments.
The result of prioritizing the best research for kids has had tangible impact. In 2015, St. Baldrick’s advanced the FDA’s approval of a new drug that drastically increases the cure rate for high-risk neuroblastoma patients. The drug is only the third developed in 20 years specifically for kids with cancer.
How the Wilton Tradition Began
In 2007, then-Wilton high schooler Reed Dempsey learned of a local fundraising event called “TeamBrent” to benefit a 2-year-old Fairfield child diagnosed with Stage IV Neuroblastoma. (Thankfully, that child is now 20 years old and cancer free). Dempsey brought the cause to the attention of school counselor Daniel Pompa.
“The first year, Reed asked me to make a donation and the following year we were fully committed to bringing this cause to Wilton High School,” Pompa said.
After participating with Team Brent for two years, WHS students officially started their own St. Baldrick’s chapter in 2009. Dempsey’s one-time request has since resulted in a tradition spanning 15 years, more than 700 shaved heads and over $357,000 raised for St. Baldrick’s Foundation.
“A group of committed and enthusiastic students is the secret to the event’s longevity. A student leadership team is entirely responsible for championing fundraising and indoctrinating younger participants as future leaders for the cause,” Pompa added. In the process of fundraising, the team brings together a community of peers, teachers, families and local businesses, many of whom become supportive cheerleaders at the head-shaving event.
As traditions go, this year’s event on March 7 will also provide an opportunity to come full circle as Dempsey will return as a speaker for the evening’s festivities. He is still an active fundraiser for St. Baldrick’s as well as an inspiration for many participants.
“Despite incredible breakthroughs in the last two decades, work still needs to be done as childhood cancer remains a reality that impacts many families in Wilton,” he said. “For that reason, students step up each year and make a difference in their community for the benefit of others.”
Dempsey is quick to credit another predominant factor in the event’s resilience and success. “Dann Pompa’s steady hand and encouragement have made this all possible. He is a hero. I know I speak for many when I say without him, I am uncertain there would have been a year five, let alone a year 15.”
Recognizing that fact, this year’s event will mark the start of a new tradition — Pompa will be honored for his longevity of leadership with the title of Crusader by the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.
The 2023 St. Baldrick’s head-shaving event will be held on Tuesday, March 7 in the Wilton High School cafeteria (395 Danbury Rd.), from 6:30-9 p.m. To donate to the student head shavees before or after the event, visit the Wilton High School St. Baldrick’s Foundation fundraising webpage.
Annie is my niece and I couldn’t be prouder.
Annie so proud of you!
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