PEPPERELL -- For the 11th year in a row, Pepperell residents are showing support for children suffering from cancer by showing that bald is beautiful.
On March 20 at 6 p.m., residents will file into the Pepperell fire station on Park Street to get their heads shaved for children's cancer research. Each shavee can register online for the event and collect sponsors. Walk-ins can register and pay a minimum of $25. Participants who register ahead of time can receive a Web page to have sponsors donate directly to. All of the funds collected are donated to St. Baldrick's Foundation, a volunteer-driven nonprofit organization dedicated to the research of childhood cancer.
The annual event is organized each year by Vinnie Messina, a firefighter in Pepperell. In the past 10 years, he said, barbers for the cause have shaved 336 heads and the event has raised $148,494.41.
"Basically it's like someone doing a walk-a-thon but instead of walking, they're getting their head shaved," said Messina.
Each year, the fire engines are removed from the station, five barber chairs are set up and a registration table is placed in the corner. Local businesses annually donate food and drinks, as well as gift cards and items to be raffled off. And there are almost always spectators. At its greatest number, said Messina, there was more than 100 people in attendance.
Each volunteer, including the barbers, are given ID tags labeled with the number of years that person has been participating.
"It's pretty cool to look around the room and see who's been doing it for six years, who's been doing it for seven years," said Messina.
The Pepperell event began after Messina received an email from Firehouse.com soliciting participants to shave their heads. At the time, the closest event was in Rhode Island, so Messina contacted St. Baldrick's about going to a barber and donating to the cause.
"You see these pictures of kids in the hospital and it makes you want to help," said Messina.
They responded to his query, asking him if he could get more firefighters involved, and it's been taking place ever since.
Every year, Messina, his wife and son take charge of organizing the event, but it's blossomed beyond them to extend to the entire community.
"If we didn't have the support of our friends, the Fire Department, the people that volunteer their time and the businesses that donate, it wouldn't be such a huge success," said Messina.
Each year is a little different; the number of participants has varied from 5 to 62 and has raised anywhere from $1,150 to $28,583. For the past four years, it hasn't dipped below the $20,000 mark.
But each year is memorable for its own reasons. One year, a father and his 2-year-old son registered. Last year, two sisters in third and sixth grade came with their dad; all three got their heads shaved together. Once, a participant raised $3,000 on his own.
"Every year it changes," said Messina. "We get some repeat people and a lot of new people."
The head-shaving event is a signature of St. Baldrick's. This year, there are more than 600 events taking place across the country, said Traci Shirk, spokesperson for St. Baldrick's.
The events began in 2000, with three insurance executives who decided to turn their St. Patrick's Day party into a fundraiser for childhood cancer.
"It was kind of on a whim. They said, 'Let's shave our heads and see how much money we raise,'" said Shirk.
They raised more than $100,000 and decided to keep the momentum going with another event the next year. They became an independent charity in 2005.
"It just kept growing and more people wanted to get involved, and here we are today," said Shirk.
Pepperell has been helping out for nearly as long as the events have been taking place.
"They're definitely one of the original events to get on board. It's really great to see them grow each year," said Shirk.
Anyone can register and organize events in their community. They have been held everywhere from schools to bars to community centers.
Last year, the organization had more than 56,000 people register and shave their heads; they raised more than $33 million, the most they have ever raised.
"We're definitely hoping to have another record-breaking year," said Shirk.