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Loss of locks is small price to pay to save a child

Published on: October 7, 2015

The audience cheered as Rhonda Willis has her hair shorn by Deborah Zaccaro of Textures Hair Studio in Plant City. Lisa Stark photos.

The audience cheered as Rhonda Willis has her hair shorn by Deborah Zaccaro of Textures Hair Studio in Plant City. Julie Hirsch photos.

By LISA STARK

The South Shore St. Baldrick’s Shave-Off Challenge, held on Saturday, Sept. 26, at the Showmen’s Club in Gibsonton, drew an enormous crowd this year and was “truly an inspiring event,” according to lead organizer Celia Easton. “It’s been uplifting to watch these people make such sacrifices.”

This year’s attendees enjoyed the camaraderie of family, friends and volunteers who agreed to “Brave the Shave” at the kid-friendly event, which included music, raffles, bake sales and fun activities lasting all through the day and well into the night.

One of the most inspiring stories of the day was that of Rhonda Willis, who decided to have 26 inches of her long locks lopped off to help save kids with cancer.

“ I felt called to do this,” said Willis. “People keep coming up to me and saying how brave I am, but I don’t consider myself brave at all. It’s the kids who are battling cancer who are brave.”

Willis said she had never considered doing anything like this before, but kept seeing the posters around town and couldn’t get the Shave-Off out of her mind. “I decided I was going to do it,” she said. “My hair is not important to me — this is.” Willis plans to donate her hair to Locks of Love, which makes wigs for individuals undergoing chemotherapy.

Willis prior to having her head shaved.

Willis prior to having her head shaved.

Willis became one of the top earners at the Shave-Off Challenge, far exceeding her goal of $1,000, with many donations being raised right on the stage. When asked about her personal commitment to fighting childhood cancer, Willis, who has a portrait photography studio in Brandon specializing in infants and maternity, said: “I have a special love for children and infants, but to be honest, this is really about my friend, Bridget Toth. I wanted to do something for her.”

Bridget Toth is the mother of 17-month-old Zack, who is currently in treatment for acute hepatoblastoma, a cancer of the liver striking mainly children under a year old. “They call him ‘The Hulk’ because he’s such a fighter,” said Toth. Despite baby Zack’s grueling battle involving a tracheostomy and chemotherapy, “He has the most cheerful disposition of any baby you could meet,” said his mother.

Overwhelmed with the emotional, physical, and financial task of caring for Zack, Bridget nevertheless found time to thank her friend Rhonda for her “wonderful gift. She’s a great lady,” said Toth. “She wished she could give the money directly to us, but I told her it was enough that she is raising awareness for childhood cancer. Only 4 percent of government research funding goes to children, but with St. Baldrick’s, it’s 100 percent. And that is huge.”

Also inspired by Willis was her daughter, Naomi, 25, who lives in Cashiers, N.C. “My daughter is now planning a St. Baldrick’s event in her own town in North Carolina,” said Willis proudly. Since its inception in 2000, the St. Baldrick’s head-shaving event has spread like wildfire all over the nation and throughout the world. More than 390,000 shavees — including more than 49,000 women — have shaved their heads in all 50 states and 28 countries.

Steve and Celia Easton were given a St. Baldrick’s “Knights of the Bald Table” award, presented by Ron Dearth.

Steve and Celia Easton were given a St. Baldrick’s “Knights of the Bald Table” award, presented by Ron Dearth.

Celia Easton, organizer of this year’s Shave-Off Challenge, said: “This year’s event was a big success. We raised $18,000 and may still have donations coming in.”

Celia and her husband Steve joined the St. Baldrick’s Foundation in remembrance of their son, Stephen, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 34. “The Shave-Off Challenge was a passion he had,” said Celia, “and we were determined to carry on in his memory.”   Named in his honor, Team Stephen raised $8,587 at this year’s event.

Other contributors to the Shave-Off included: Aaron and AJ Jackson, Billie Sue Macaluso, Matt Brooks, Talking Pint, Ryan McVeitty, Linksters Tap Room of Brandon, Bob Hoover, Jason Bainbridge, Mandy Fears, Davi Jones, Ryan Hoover, Darrel Wanamaker, Jeffrey Hagin, Daniel, Nathan, Austyn Jackson, Garth Petitt, Arley Benton, Bubba Buzbee, Edward Hoover, Heath Dukes, Zackery Hagadorn, Haley Hoover, Pudge and Beth Hoover, Phillip Moore, Alison Heisler, Marcus Wise, John P., PJ and Joe H., Donna Washburn, Kristy Dauberman, Brandie Jackson, Justine Thompson, Pudge Stephen Deantonio, Marcia Heath, Edward Dauberman, Ashley Lewis and Jamie Logan.

For more information, or to volunteer for next year’s event, visit the South Shore St. Baldrick’s Shave-Off Challenge website at www.stbaldricks.org or email Celia Easton at cdes13@aol.com.

For more information about Bridget Toth and her son Zack, visit Hope and Love for Zack (The Hulk) on Facebook. You can also find information on donating to Zack’s care by visiting gofundme.com/4ykq45mk.

Cancer survivor and “Honored Child” Samantha Lee, left, hugs Mary Kesler, mother of her friend Sierra, who passed away after her battle with lymphoblastic leukemia.

Cancer survivor and “Honored Child” Samantha Lee, left, hugs Mary Kesler, mother of her friend Sierra, who passed away after her battle with lymphoblastic leukemia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Debbie Shafer, left, part of Team Stephen, gives Rhonda Willis a big “thank you” hug.

Debbie Shafer, left, part of Team Stephen, gives Rhonda Willis a big “thank you” hug.

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