The Mepham High School gym was loud and bustling once again for its annual “Chop Your Locks for Charity” event, as the entire Bellmore-Merrick school community gathered to raise awareness for pediatric cancer research.
For the past 15 years, Mepham has been a dedicated supporter of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a nonprofit that raises funds to help find cures for children with cancer. Volunteers sponsored by family and friends shave their heads, or chop their locks, in solidarity with children who may lose their hair during chemotherapy treatments.
Mepham social studies teachers Kerry Dennis and Chris Patten, who instruct seniors in the Participation in Government class, organized the event. Dennis said that the first time Mepham held a St. Baldrick’s fundraiser was around 2008, and then the event took a hiatus for a few years. Since 2013, she and Patten have led the efforts, and the school has raised more than $600,000 for the organization.
The students in the Participation in Government classes are in charge of publicizing the event, going out into the community and collecting raffles, prizes and donations, hosting the day’s activities, and running a kid’s corner inside the gym, Dennis said.
The money is raised when kids register with St. Baldrick’s online, whether they’re planning on shaving their heads or not. They then share fundraising links with their families and friends and collect donations. Dennis said around 230 people registered this year.
The top fundraiser was Mepham senior, Thor Bjornsson, earning $4,300 for the foundation.
This year’s fundraiser, which took place on March 22, saw crowds of people, including students, teachers, administrators and community members, lining up to get their heads shaved, or have their locks chopped off, by volunteers from the salon, Bangz Spa, and Bellmore-Merrick’s cosmetology students.
“We try to make it a big party to celebrate people coming together to fight for such an important cause,” Dennis said. “It really just shows the generosity not only of our students, but of their families and the community.”
The evening also received live, on-air coverage from students in the Bellmore-Merrick broadcasting program, which is housed at Mepham.
The evening highlighted a half dozen students who are either cancer survivors or battling the illness. The four children in the Bellmore-Merrick district were Carsyn Volpe, Robert LaSpina and sisters Kate and Kristen O’Halloran. Mepham also honored Guiliana Geller, the daughter of teacher Jackie Geller, and Gabriella Brancacio.
Kate O’Halloran, a senior at John F. Kennedy High School, told the Herald she has been battling cancer since December 2022. Her sister, Kristen, a freshman at Kennedy and an avid volleyball and lacrosse player, is a cancer survivor.
Her family, Kate said, has taken part in St. Baldrick’s fundraisers in support of Kristen’s battle for many years at various Long Island eateries, the most recent being the Nutty Irishman in Farmingdale.
“We would honor my little sister, because at the time, I didn’t have cancer yet,” Kate said. “But since I got diagnosed, I wanted to come support the other kids being honored here at Mepham (too).”
The organization has meant a lot to her family, she added. “Just the love and support the community brings, everyone rallying together and supporting kids who have cancer — because childhood cancer is extremely underfunded,” she said, “it’s just a great thing, and it means a lot to my family and I.”
Pediatric cancers are significantly underfunded, according to St. Baldrick’s website, because more adults get cancer than kids. Fighting pediatric cancer often requires different treatment approaches, because adolescent bodies are so different from those of adults.
The average age of a pediatric cancer diagnosis is six, and St. Baldrick’s believes that every gap in funding it can close will help some of the best treatment centers in the world perform life-saving research and come up with clinical trials to help all kids affected by cancer live long, healthy lives.
Mepham’s principal, Anthony DeMartinis, said seeing the event come together was remarkable. “I have been in the office here, watching students, parents, neighbors, teachers get together to create this incredible event,” he said. “I know this takes a lot of people — Ms. Dennis and Mr. Patten are two incredible, passionate teachers.
“If you are a survivor or fighter,” he added, addressing the crowd in the gym, “please know that you inspire us and we are so glad you are sharing your strength with us.”
Despite the name, St. Baldrick’s is not associated with a saint of the Catholic Church — rather it’s a play on words that explains the efforts of those taking part in a fundraiser.
Thus far, Mepham has raised nearly $68,000 this year, but the donation links stay open for a full year, and that number is expected to climb. To contribute to the school’s cause, visit TinyURL.com/MephamStBaldricks.