St. John Neumann students donate hair to aid cancer patients

LOVE OFFERING St. John Neumann School students and parents take part in the fourth annual Ponytail Drive to benefit cancer patients. Girls and some mothers volunteer to grow out their hair and then have it cut as a way to give back to a good cause. The American Cancer Society and Pantene help sponsor the event. Photo by Bill Brewer

LOVE OFFERING St. John Neumann School students and parents take part in the fourth annual Ponytail Drive to benefit cancer patients. Girls and some mothers volunteer to grow out their hair and then have it cut as a way to give back to a good cause. The American Cancer Society and Pantene help sponsor the event. Photo by Bill Brewer

Annual gift of locks continues to grow in popularity as more girls, mothers take part in service project 

“I want to donate my hair because I want to make a tribute to my grandma and my neighbor and all others who were diagnosed with cancer.”

“I’m in fourth grade and I am donating my hair because I want to give it to people who don’t have any from cancer treatment.”

“I’m in fourth grade and the reason I am doing this is because other people need hair more than I do.”

“I am doing this because I have friends and family that have had (cancer) treatment.”

“I decided to donate my hair because I have a lot, so why not share.”

“I want to donate my hair because there are people who need it more than I do.”

“I want to donate my hair to show that you can give of yourself no matter your age.”

And with student testimonials like those read aloud to a gym full of St. John Neumann School classmates, faculty, supporters and media, 38 girls had their long locks sheared in the third annual Ponytail Drive to benefit Pantene Beautiful Lengths and the American Cancer Society to support cancer patients.

The students, who ranged from kindergarten to eighth grade, anxiously awaited the moment when a carefully selected classmate, sibling or parent put scissors to hair and snipped. Some of the girls were joined by their mothers, who also agreed to go under the shears.

The smiles were going on even as the hair was coming off as smart phones, tablets and cameras captured the event, where more than 30 feet of hair was collected for Pantene. The beauty products company will transform donations by St. John Neumann and other groups around the country into natural-hair wigs for Pantene Beautiful Lengths campaign partner HairUWear that are then distributed free to female cancer patients through the national network of American Cancer Society wig banks.

Also assisting in the Ponytail Drive were hair stylists from Knoxville-area hair styling chain Ross the Boss, who styled the donors’ hair immediately after their donation.

Participation in the event has been growing each year, according to Michelle Dougherty, who teaches at St. John Neumann and organizes the Ponytail Drive. She said 25 girls participated the first year amid some persistent prodding and 32 took part last year.

“After the first year, we thought there was no way girls would get in front of the school and do this,” Ms. Dougherty said, adding that Pantene then submitted a video of high school girls from another state donating their hair and explaining why they do it.

“Now, we have more girls who purposely grow out their hair so they can donate,” she said. “It has become tradition now, so we will continue to do it.”

Support for the event is growing as fast as the girls’ hair, and St. John Neumann Principal Bill Derbyshire is one of the biggest fans.

“I think it promotes our Catholic mission of giving back. It’s a unique way for our school, and especially these girls, to give something back in such a loving way,” Mr. Derbyshire said.

St. John Neumann School’s Ponytail Drive isn’t without emotion, including tears. As volunteers braided strands of hair to be donated prior to the actual cutting, a couple of younger students cried at the thought of losing their long tresses. But parents and teachers rushed in to ease the situation.

Then Ms. Dougherty put the situation in perspective. She said a school parent, who is a mother of two boys, had long hair when she recently was diagnosed with cancer. She had her hair cut before starting the treatment that would make her hair fall out, and she donated her locks to the Ponytail Drive.

“She donated nine inches of hair,” Ms. Dougherty said. “In our first year, we had two sisters whose father passed away the summer before the school year. These sisters, together with a third sister, had their hair cut and donated.”

Pantene and the American Cancer Society have made more than 24,000 free real-hair wigs from more than 400,000 donated ponytails. It takes eight to 15 ponytails to make a wig and each ponytail must be at least eight inches in length. Hair that has been bleached, permanently colored or chemically treated can’t be used.

For Sharon Peterson, the Ponytail Drive is a family affair. She has a second-grader and a 3-year-old who were donating and a 12-year-old who has given hair three times.

“It will be strange when you wash your hair for the first time, but it isn’t traumatic. You just share your hair,” Mrs. Peterson said.

Classmates Maddie Vanderhoofven and Mary Iverson waited anxiously for their turn under the scissors. But the seventh-graders took a practical approach to their selfless act of service.

For Mary, it was her first time donating. Maddie took part the first year.

“I’m kind of nervous, but it’s for a good cause, so I’m happy,” Mary said before having her locks cut.

The more experienced Maddie, who took part in the first Ponytail Drive, shared Mary’s concern.

“It’s nerve-wracking to think you’re losing so much of your hair, but it’s wonderful to think it’s going for such a good cause to people who need hair,” Maddie said, noting that she “weighed the pros and cons” before reaching the conclusion that “it’s something I know I want to do.”

Mary spent a year preparing for the big day.

“After they did it last year, my friends inspired me. So I decided to grow out my hair and donate it this year,” she said.

For Olivia Escher, a sixth-grader at the school, is wasn’t the loss of her hair that worried her. It was inclement weather.

The cutting event was to be held during Catholic Schools Week in late January, but snow forced a postponement.

“She was very upset when they canceled school because she was anxious to give her hair,” said Pam Escher, Olivia’s mother and hair trimmer for the event.

But once the event was back on, Olivia’s concern shifted.

“I was worried my mom wouldn’t cut it straight,” she said after the tresses were trimmed. “But I was happy that cancer patients will have a chance to have my hair.”

Tian Lyons went above and beyond supporting her sixth-grade daughter, Vivian. She sat with her daughter and had her own jet-black strands cut by her son, Tony, who is Vivian’s twin and also is a St. John Neumann sixth-grader.

Donating hair isn’t new for Mrs. Lyons and she had been preparing for the big day.

“I decided last year to do it and I’ve been letting my hair grow. I did it once in college when my hair was to my knees,” Mrs. Lyons said. “I have to cut it anyway, so why not for a good cause.”

She was surprised at how many girls decided to cut their hair and already is planning ahead. “I hope I can do it again next year.”

Vivian already has her sights set on 2015 and immediately realized a secondary benefit to donating her hair.

“It feels lighter and should be easier to take care of. I thought it would be shorter, but it looks better than I thought,” she said. “Once my hair is longer, I will do it again.”

Ms. Dougherty takes the Ponytail Drive personally and is annually brought to tears as she tells faculty and students about the cancer patients who benefit. And she not only organizes the annual Ponytail Drive, she has been a willing participant — along with her sisters.

As she personalized the impact cancer can have on an individual and their family and friends in remarks to the school, she shared a few facts that put the Ponytail Drive in perspective.

She said with nearly 700,000 adult American women being diagnosed with cancer this year alone, and more than one in three women developing some form of cancer in her lifetime, the campaign touches mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and friends. And she noted that the effects of hair loss on women is startling, with one study revealing that 58 percent of women consider hair loss the worst side effect when undergoing chemotherapy and 8 percent are at risk of avoiding potentially life-saving treatment altogether because of their hair-loss fear.

It’s the members of Ms. Dougherty’s immediate family, or school family, or diocesan family who are touched by cancer who come to mind as she orchestrates the Ponytail Drive in front of a school full of students, faculty, parents, friends, TV cameras and newspaper reporters.

“There are a lot of heart tugs that happen. One year I will get through it without crying,” she said.

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