Since North Dakota’s first St. Baldrick’s Day in March 2008, the Brave the Shave event has grown into one of the largest annual charitable fundraisers supported by the community — and now by a Bismarck High School team as well.
Touching many lives, cancer has become an illness that takes many lives — both young and old. Bismarck High School English teacher Annie McKenzie set out to participate in the fundraiser Brave the Shave for the St. Baldrick's Foundation to raise money for childhood cancer research, when her mission inspired others to join and form the team from BHS.
Established in 2000 to conquer childhood cancers, the St. Baldrick's Foundation inspired Basin Electric Power Cooperative to sponsor an event of their own. Since the Brave the Shave event began, McKenzie's husband has worked for Basin Electric and was involved with the fundraiser to raise money for childhood cancer research. This year, McKenzie was inspired to go bald for the cause as well.
"I talked to my husband about the possibility of doing this, and he was 100 percent supportive to do it. And I knew myself that if I didn't verbally start talking about it with people, then I might just think about it, think about it, think about it, and then not do it," McKenzie said. "But I also knew that once I said it to one person, then it was my word, and I would follow through with it."
After McKenzie began talking with students about shaving her head to raise money for childhood cancer research, she got nothing but positive feedback.
"So when I started talking about what I was going to do, some students said 'oh, I wanna be a part of that.' I had people just coming up to me saying, 'I heard you were going to do this, can we be involved too?' So then just by word of mouth, a team formed," McKenzie said.
"When Mrs. McKenzie said that she was going to cut her hair off, I just thought if she can, I can do it too," BHS senior and shavee Quinn Irey said.
McKenzie and eight students including: senior Michael Matzke, junior Bennett Strombeck, sophomore Kyle Elkins, senior Quinn Irey, sophomore Madi Wray, senior Morgan Wray, senior Kale Ohlhauser and freshman Casey Marte formed the Bismarck High Bald Eagles. The team also consisted of German teacher Mary Anne Crow and Art teacher Jennifer Bedard-Upgren, along with McKenzie's three-year-old son Brogan.
"Hopefully the message that we're sending is a positive one, that we are just willing to help someone in need, and that someone does need us," McKenzie said. "Hair is something that is personal, so by shaving it off, we are putting ourselves in the position that cancer patients have to do, they don't have that choice because of what the chemo does to them."
Each student and teacher has their own personal story as to why they joined the Bismarck High Bald Eagles team. McKenzie has been affected in different ways by childhood cancer. When growing up in junior high, she had a friend that had brain cancer who passed away at the end of their freshmen year.
"She always has kind of been in the forefront of my mind, because of her positive attitude all the way through the end. For example, in high school her license plates on her car were the initials RUSMILN, which stood for 'Are You Smiling.' Any time we would come over to visit, it wasn't about her, it was about us and what was going on," McKenzie said. " I feel passionately if by research we can stamp out some of these things that are affecting people, it's a positive thing. It's just hair, it will grow back."
For Ohlhauser, inspiration to raise money for the Brave the Shave event came from his mother.
"When I was younger my mom had cancer, and had to actually wear wigs around, and actually lost all of her hair and had to go through all of the therapy, so I kind of look at it like I'm giving something back to my mom," Ohlhauser said. " I'm really proud of everyone who's doing it, that everyone really wants to do it, everyone is here because they want to be."
After McKenzie talked to Madi Wray about the Brave the Shave event, Madi believed it was a good cause, especially since her mom and grandpa both had cancer. Wray's courage to shave her head for the fundraiser inspired both her brother Morgan Wray, and her prom date Bennett Strombeck to also go bald for the cause.
"I know my mom and grandpa didn't have childhood cancer, but it still inspired me because I know how families feel in that situation," Wray said. "I think it's a really strong message, shaving your head, because it's not what most kids would do. So I think I'm sending a really strong message and it signifies that we are doing it for cancer research."
The Bismarck High Bald Eagles set a goal to raise $3,000 collectively. So far they blew that figure right out of the water, with close to $4,500 being raised to go towards helping children with cancer.
"I'm continually impressed with these students, and how they give themselves and their time, and now their hair," McKenzie said. "I'm also impressed with all the people donating money for another worthy cause, and just how big their hearts are, and it makes me proud to be a part of a school that is so caring."
On March 14, over 300 people came together at the YMCA for the Brave the Shave event. As 181people had their heads shaved, the crowed cheered them on.
"I'm proud that it's not a fundraiser that runs top down, it is a fundraiser that people decide they want to be apart of, and then they just do it," McKenzie said. "And then what has inspired me is the kids, and their different stories, I feel like I don't have anything to lose."
All ten team members of the Bismarck High Bald Eagles that shaved their heads and/or donated hair took something valuable and precious away from the event. Martel, the only freshman to shave his head, said it was a fun experience to see some of his peers have their heads shaved too.
“I thought it was a good cause, and seeing all the kids that do have to shave their head because of cancer, it’s not fair for them, so I decided to do it for them,” Martel said. “It gave me a better perspective for seeing what kids with cancer have to go through.”
As one can imagine, being the only female student from Bismarck High School to shave her head for the Brave the Shave event was a big deal for Madi Wray.
“When they first cut my ponytail off it already felt a lot lighter, then when they buzzed of the first chunk of hair I immediately felt the cold air hit my head and that’s when everything finally became realistic for me,” Madi Wray said. “I was getting a little worried about how it would look while she was shaving it but when I looked over at my mom and I heard her say, ‘oh my gosh it actually looks really cute!’ and that’s when I knew I could finally relax a little bit.”
Madi Wray said participating in the Brave the Shave event and shaving her head has definitely made her a better person, and she would not have changed a thing.
“I’ve been changed in the sense that I feel very renewed,” Madi Wray said. “I feel very blessed to be a happy, healthy teenage girl and to do this for some little girls and boys that aren’t the healthiest right now is just the greatest satisfaction for me. Hair is just a very, very small fraction that adds to the equation of beauty. Of course my hair was important to me but it’s also very materialistic too.
“I can live without it for a few months and still feel beautiful too. I also feel proud in the sense that most 15-year-old girls never would have done this, I didn’t even think I would! But last year when my mom was diagnosed with uterine cancer I felt how strong of an impact cancer has on families, so in a way this was just my way of giving back to everyone that helped us along that journey.”
After the event took place, all the shavees from the Bismarck High Bald Eagles had one thing in common — they all thought participating in the Brave the Shave event was a success, and for a worthy cause.
“I am so proud of these kids for volunteering and deciding that they wanted to form a team, and that they are willing to walk through the halls of BHS and not worry about what others are going to think about them. Because they knew that it was a good cause, and they did it all on their own. Nobody asked them to be apart of a fundraiser, it was that they wanted to do it, and it made it that much more special to me.”
“I’m truly grateful for everyone who helped make this event such a success,” Holen said. “I can’t begin to tell you how amazing it is to watch so many people with such passion come together to join in the fight against childhood cancer.”