By Jessica Connor
COLUMBIA – On a chilly, rainy afternoon, atop a platform surrounded by hundreds of chanting, applauding survivors and supporters, one United Methodist pastor submitted herself to the ultimate humility: shaving her head.
Covered in a cheerful green smock, the Rev. Beth Drennen grinned wildly as chunks of her hair hit the ground, mingling with the hair of dozens of other shavees – all to help stop childhood cancer.
“It feels wonderful!” Drennen exclaimed after the head-shave, standing in manic energy with the other shavees. “I was more ready for this than I thought.”
Drennen and more than 200 others flocked to Jillian’s in the Vista, Columbia, on March 26 to shave their heads in front of hundreds of people to raise money to cure childhood cancer and spread awareness about the disease that kills more children in the U.S. and Canada than any other illness. Sponsored by St. Baldrick’s Foundation, the fundraising event raised nearly $50,000 for cancer research and brought heavy promotion from local rock and TV stations, plus gave participants the chance to come together in the fight to save lives.
Drennen submitted to the razor in honor of Chase Hamm, a 17-year-old member of Zion United Methodist Church, Prosperity. Drennen is on family leave, and her husband, Lowry, pastors Zion.
Chase is battling two types of brain cancer – a craniopharyngioma, diagnosed in 2007, and osteosarcoma of the skull, diagnosed in 2009 – plus myelodysplastic syndrome, which he learned about in September. In spite of this, Chase is a U.S. Specialty Sports Association baseball player with the Chapin A’s, an honor roll student at Mid-Carolina High School and a member of Boy Scout Troop 222, as well as raised more than $52 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and won the hospital’s first Richard C. Shadyac Award for fundraising.
The family travels the country doing radiothons and lectures, and they also sell “Bald Chicks Are Hot” T-shirts to help cancer research and aid with Chase’s medical costs.
Chase’s mother, Melissa Hamm, said she is immensely grateful for Drennen’s sacrifice.
“I’m honored and very blessed other people would care enough to do something so extreme to their bodies to show support,” said Hamm, sporting a shaved head herself. “Especially for a woman to say, ‘I’d shave the hair off my body and go around bald,’ ah –” her voice catches. “Words cannot express my gratitude.”
Also honored that day was 10-year-old Deanna, another young Zion member recently diagnosed with cancer.
For Drennen, shaving her head was also about freedom – from worldly vanity, from what defines us, especially as women.
“We do things to identify ourselves and label ourselves, but that’s not what defines me, not who I am,” Drennen said. “What I do for God is what defines me.”
Hamm can relate.
When she first learned her son had cancer, she gave it to the Lord. But fear still paralyzed her at times.
However, when she shaved her head, the very action of being able to do something tangible to help her child was transformative.
“My fear went away,” Hamm said. “It’s not my plan; it’s God’s plan.”
St. Baldrick’s volunteers said shaving one’s head can be very liberating for people. Krystle Eckrote, event coordinator for St. Baldrick’s, said that while they appreciate the novelty of a United Methodist pastor shaving her head for a teen with cancer, they are not surprised that she would do so.
“We have everyone from children to the elderly doing this; it builds awareness, solidarity, unity,” Eckrote said. “These kids (with cancer) don’t have a choice to lose their hair from chemotherapy and cancer. We’re fighting for them.”
Drennen’s daughter, Nell, thinks her mother’s actions are both “weird and cool.” She knows Drennen is shaving her head to help raise awareness about children with cancer, and money for a cure, but she’s a little embarrassed people will think her mom is strange to walk around with a bald head voluntarily.
But Drennen feels beautiful.
The seeds for her hair sacrifice were planted years ago, when Drennen was in seminary at Emory University. She saw a woman with her head shaved, and she was struck by her unconventional beauty and confidence.
“She was the most strikingly beautiful woman I had ever seen,” Drennen said. “I told myself, ‘I hope one day I’m bold and confident enough to do that.’ Now, what a time to show my support for cancer survivors, and selfishly, for myself.”
Friend Nancy Boivin also shaved her head at the St. Baldrick’s event March 26. Boivin’s shave was in honor of Autumn, a 4-year-old battling cancer in Michigan. Boivin, a three-year cancer survivor herself, said the young girl is sometimes so sick she cannot leave the house.
Like Drennen, she too embraces the simple beauty of a shaved head.
“Think about how much I can save on hair products,” Boivin said, laughing. “It’s a freedom from the trappings of society.”
For Hamm, Drennen and the rest of the team, they are just happy to do something, even small, to help end the dreaded disease that is impacting the people they love.
“We’re raising money for kids,” Drennen said. “That’s what this is all about.”