BY REBECCA ISENHARt
NISKAYUNA — Peer pressure isn’t always such a bad thing.
In one Niskayuna friend group, it’s raised thousands of dollars for cancer research.
A team of sixth-grade soccer players from Iroquois, Van Antwerp and Schenectady middle schools have far surpassed their $3,000 team fundraising goal, bringing in $8,500 with several days still left to go before they participate in the annual St. Baldrick’s Event at Proctors in Schenectady.
But in order to collect, they’ll have to shave their heads.
“Those girls are just at the age of puberty and their looks are so important to them,” said Stacy DeBritz, a Niskayuna resident who has worked with her husband, Mike, to help organize the event since 2012.
At the 2014 event, a now-seventh-grader from Niskayuna named Maddie Beltramo left an impression by sacrificing her long hair for the cause. It was her courageous haircut that indirectly sparked the formation of the Soccer Ball-dees, as the team has named themselves.
But first, it inspired a younger sister of one of the teammates.
“The people with bald heads, I don’t want them to feel as alone,” said Regan Anderson, a second-grader at Rosendale Elementary who determined she’d shave her head last year, after seeing a video of Beltramo at the 2014 event.
Her mom, Kelly Anderson, wasn’t sure she would stick with it. But instead of backing down, Regan recruited her sixth-grade sister, Emma, who in turn started her own team and recruited even more friends to shave.
At first, just two of Emma’s teammates, Aless Dagnall-Wise and Caroline Canty, joined the Soccer Ball-dees. They spread their message of supporting research for childhood cancer treatments by going on the video announcements at their middle school, an honor usually reserved for seventh- and eighth-graders, but extended to the sixth-grade fundraisers for their cause.
And then, as the event approached and the girls’ excitement grew, their teammates from their travel soccer team began to think they might like to shave their heads, too. By Aprik 24, all nine teammates joined the Soccer Ball-dees. Coach Cheryl Kuzniar had committed to shave, as well.
“My teammates are very inspiring to me,” teammate Grace Lemelin said. Her mom, Tina Lee, is captain of Regan’s team, Cueballs for a Cure.
The first few teammates to make the leap helped lead the way for others who were more reticent.
“A lot of my friends said I shouldn’t shave,” Adele Giovanniello said. “They said it would be too dramatic.”
But she has since given in to the other peer pressure — the kind that ends with the breeze against a bald head.
“Certain people need some convincing,” organizer Mike DeBritz said.
“Middle-aged men seem to be the most reticent to shave their heads,” Stacy DeBritz said. “They’re concerned that what they have will not grow back.”
Hairstylists say working follicles will rally and return hair. Guys and girls just won’t have to go to their regular barbershops and salons for a couple of months.
More than 200 participants are expected this Saturday, May 2, where 12 local barbers will put their clippers to work against cancer. Alongside the Soccer Ball-dees and the Cueballs for a Cure will be other local, familiar faces, including interim Superintendent John Yagielski. Niskayuna High School Principal John Rickert also shaved his head in conjunction with the event, but he did so at the high school in front of an audience the Tuesday before.
In total, the participants in the Proctors event have already raised more than $100,000 and will likely raise more.
At the event, the shavees, as St. Baldricks calls them, are planning to enjoy themselves.
“I want them to cut off my ponytail and then do a Mohawk,” Emma said. Another teammate said she’d like to dye her hair blue when it starts to grow back.
But there will also be reminders of the serious effects of the fundraiser.
Adam Frontera, the 7-year-old son of GE researcher Mark Frontera, is currently in remission from neuroblastoma. He and his family will also attend the May 2 event.
The DeBritzes are fighting cancer because the disease moved in with them for a couple of years. Their daughter Audrey was a fifth-grader at Hillside Elementary School in 2009 when she was diagnosed with leukemia. The DeBritz family beat the disease, and Audrey is now a cancer-free junior at Niskayuna High School.
Right up to the event, anyone can sign up (and can even make appointments for their haircuts) at www.stbaldricks.org. Even after the event, donations will be accepted through the website.
If people need a pep talk, Stacy DeBritz can offer words that might persuade them to become saints.
“I would tell them a child is diagnosed with cancer every three minutes in the world,” she said. “It’s their opportunity to sit in that child’s shoes for just a few minutes, to go through a slight hardship of losing their hair, but having empathy and understanding for what the child goes through.”
Photo Gallery: Niskayuna High School Principal, John Rickert has his head shaved by Becky Wadsworth, at the school on Tuesday morning April 28, 2015. Rickert had his head shaved for the St. Baldrick’s cause. St. Baldrick’s is a worldwide phenomenon in which “shavees” have their hair buzzed to raise money for childhood cancer research efforts and to show support for children around the world undergoing cancer treatment.
Photos by Marc Schultz/Gazette Photographer