A jolly Frank Sinatra tune rang out on a piano inside Proctors’ Arcade, but a woman seated on a makeshift stage looked anything but cheerful. She squinted her eyes in a grimace and then forced a weak smile as the woman behind her ran an electric clipper up one side of her head and down the other.
In a chair to her left a heavyset man looked forward nonchalantly as a hairdresser brushed the last few loose, freshly chopped hairs from his neck. This was just another day at the barbershop for him.
And in another chair, a little boy wiggled and smiled excitedly as his parents cheered him on and snapped pictures.
For the grimacing woman, relaxed man and squirming boy, this is the least they can do. Losing a little hair is nothing compared to what those living with or affected by cancer have to go through, they all agreed.
“It’ll grow back,” said Delia Wagner, a Ballston Spa woman whose newly bald head bore a drawing of a round face wearing a green leprechaun hat.
It was the logo for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, an international charity that raises funds for childhood cancer research. Most people know the foundation for its head-shaving events, and on Saturday afternoon anyone walking through the first floor of Proctors would have heard the music, laughs and excited shrieks coming from Schenectady’s 2nd annual St. Baldrick’s Foundation Fundraiser.
Wagner was a new teacher at the Greater Amsterdam School District when Joan Snyder and Debbie Lynch took her under their wing. Both women died in the last decade, mere months after being diagnosed with cancers.
“They both helped me so much during my first year,” recalled Wagner. “Joan passed away just after my first year and she left five kids behind and it was just so sad. And Debbie, she was the heart and soul of our school and when she passed away it was just, it’s something that even now, you know, I miss her and I cry.”
Although shaving her head had always been an item on her bucket list, and always tempted her around summertime, Wagner decided to do it less as a fashion statement and more for the memory of her friends — all while raising money for cancer research.
The Capital Region’s first St. Baldrick’s head-shaving event began in Albany. In recent years, though, participants have become inspired to bring the events closer to home and start hosting their own events. At least, that was the case for the DeBritzes.
“Proctors was very gracious in receiving us and hosting this for us,” said Stacy DeBritz, a Niskayuna woman whose daughter Audrey was diagnosed in elementary school with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2009. “They provided this entire space and all the setup, and they really have been amazing.”
When a child is diagnosed with cancer, it doesn’t take the parents long to learn the statistics. Every three minutes a child is diagnosed. More children are lost to cancer in the U.S. than any other disease. And of the government funding that goes toward cancer research, only 3 percent goes toward childhood cancer.
St. Baldrick’s has funded more childhood cancer research than any organization besides the U.S. government, according to its website. In 2012, it raised more than $33.5 million with 1,308 head-shaving events. So far this year, it has raised just over $19.9 million.
Not surprising, most head “shavees” are men. Of the nearly 50,000 participants to shave their heads last year, only 7,079 were women. That number is rising, said DeBritz.
“I think we have close to 10 females this year,” she said. “There were four last year.”
A petite 13-year-old girl with long brown and auburn locks took her seat in the barber’s chair. She appeared calm, but just moments before her mind was racing. “Am I really going to do this?” she thought.
But as soon as the hairdresser gave her a handful of her shiny, long hair, she was oddly relieved to have done it.
“It was totally worth it to know that someone is going to be able to get that and have a wig made out of it,” said Carmila Stafford.
Her freshly bald head made the Niskayuna teen’s thick brown eyebrows look fuller and her alabaster cheekbones more prominent. Stafford once saw a picture of a female bass player with her head shaved, and thought it looked really pretty. And ever since the third grade, she’s bugged her mom for a short hair cut.
“She’s been asking to have her hair cut for a while, and I said, 'No, try something else, let’s go for a bob,’” recalled her mom Christine after the big event. “I was always the one resisting, and then just finally I said to her, 'Just do whatever you want. It’s just hair and I support you.’”
In the hallway, kids with light-up sneakers chased each other around the adults, and moms posed for cameras, flanked by bald husbands and bald sons. Music continued, and organizers took turns emceeing the event, cheering on the young kids who were seated on stage.
“You look good, son! Your ears look taller and fuller!” joked a man with a microphone.
This year, Carmila was one of more than 100 local participants to get their heads shaved for the cause. She said it made her feel good to do something like this for charity, especially since as a girl, it would cause people to stop and ask questions.
“There aren’t a lot of girls my age that do this,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun, because you’re doing something for someone else and it makes you feel good about yourself, as well.”
The goal at this year’s event, said DeBritz, was to raise more than $40,000. Last year, her goal was to raise $20,000 and the event ended up bringing in $62,000.
A lot of that money goes to Albany Medical Center, which is the only hospital in the region with a center for childhood cancer. It’s where Audrey DeBritz, who is now 15 and cancer free, received treatment.
“You would not recognize her as a cancer survivor,” said her mom, Stacy. “She’s beautiful.”