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Posted: 03/19/14

Above, hair stylists with a leprechaun in the middle to give the girls good luck before their six hour volunteer time to shave heads. Below, the Romeo High School hockey team presenting a check in the amount of $2,265.37 to the Romeo St. Baldrick's organization.

(Observer photos by Mike Nicley)

Fight against childhood cancer gets
a big boost at St. Baldrick's event

Observer Special Writer
      Bright-eyed and brave, Emily Phillips is living proof that cancer research saves lives.
       She's also an inspiration to the 5,000 volunteers who trekked to Romeo this past weekend to shave heads as part of the 2014 St. Baldrick's fundraising event that earned nearly $300,000 in the fight against kids' cancer.
       Ten-year-old Emily is a survivor of rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare pediatric skull-base tumor. She was treated at Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York City, where she endured 12 rounds of high-dose chemotherapy, along with surgery and radiation.
       The treatment was administered as part of a research study, funded in part by groups like St. Baldrick's.
       Emily's mom, Mireille Phillips, said her daughter owes her life to the effort.
       "We have our daughter today thanks to a clinical trial, which is evidence that what is being done here today works," said Mireille, standing among the crowd Saturday at the Romeo Lions Club Field. "Research saves lives."
       Emily's experience is music to the ears of Kevin Danaj and Mike Fiscus, co-organizers of the Romeo event, now in its seventh year.
       "She is a prime example of ways in which we are winning," said Fiscus, sporting a freshly shaven bald head. "The things that we do and the hope that we give to families like hers is what motivates us."
       The St. Baldrick's Foundation is a national organization whose sole mission is to fund childhood cancer research. The Romeo chapter ranks among the organization's most successful, taking in $1.3 million since 2008.
       Saturday showed why. Hundreds of volunteers supported this year's event, including 30 hair cutters who shaved more than 600 heads that came in all shapes, sizes and genders.
       Getting shaved for a cause
       Among the early shavees was Romeo resident Juli Grover. It was her first time participating. She raised more than $5,000, the third highest amount for individuals.
       Grover was motivated by compassion.
       "If we could do anything to make a difference, to show these kids they're beautiful, regardless of what their hair looks like, it would be a great thing to do," she said. "My kids and husband were fully supportive. I just started raising money a few weeks ago and it's been an awesome response."
       Also getting cut were Gavan Kirsh and Josh Farmer, both 12, from Washington Township. Kirsh raised $100, while Farmer earned $625.
       Kirsh was inspired by the death of Summer Earl, a Hevel Elementary student who passed away recently from brain stem glioma.
       "She was my little sister's friend," he said.
       Danaj is awed by the participation of students like Kirsh and Farmer.
       "When you see kids in the seventh and eighth grade shaving their heads, that's amazing," he said. "They are our future. They are going to grow up to be caring, involved members of our community."
       Danaj's son, seventh-grader Ryan, raised more than $4,000.
       "That's him knocking on doors, sending out emails, trying to raise money. It's just amazing," said Danaj.
       Among the youngest shavees was 4-and-a-half year old Nolan Harbison, who was back for the second year in a row, prompted by his mom, Stephany, a Romeo High School teacher.
       She said seeing kids walking the school halls with their shaved heads motivated her to enlist Nolan.
       Nolan was part of Team Little Guys, along with his cousin and uncle, Chris and Norm Peraino. They raised $300.
       Cutting for a cause
       Among the cutters were several first-timers, including Marietta Little and Heather Galloway.
       Both are friends of Michelle Failer, of Allenton, who was back for the third time. All three have been impacted by cancer. Failer's 6-year-old cousin passed away from the disease.
       "It's an amazing event," said Failer. "It's for a great cause and the emotional impact is incredible."
       Kerry Henderson of Washington was another first-time cutter. She was one of several stylists, including owner Michelle Knapp, from Salon Concepts, located in Washington.
       "I want to help prevent childhood cancer," said Henderson. "I want to be part of the helping and the healing."
       Other highlights Saturday included:
       • Pastor Jon Waters of River of God Church giving the invocation.
       • The Romeo hockey team presenting a check for $2,265, which came from their charity game this season vs. Eisenhower.
       • The St. Andrews Pipe Band appearing for the fourth year in a row, playing bagpipes.
       • The Powell Balddogs winning the team category, raising more than $33,000. Dan Czartoryski said the team is made up of eight teachers and 34 Powell Middle School students, who turned the cause into a school-wide effort.
       Raising awareness
       In addition to raising money, one of Fiscus's goals is to raise awareness for childhood cancer research. Presently, childhood cancer receives approximately 4 percent of funding,
       Growing the Romeo event into something that can't be ignored is part of his plan.
       "Childhood cancer deserves a lot more recognition, a lot more funding than it gets today," said Fiscus. "We've tried to make Romeo St. Baldrick's really big, because we not only want to raise funds, but also raise awareness of the need for it. We want this to be so big that the media can't ignore it."
       That goal was helped Saturday by the presence of Jay Towers, of FOX 2 Detroit, who was on hand to help get things started.
       "We've covered this on Fox 2 for many years," said Towers. "Mike and Kevin asked if I'd come out to welcome the crowd and, of course, I said yes. The fact that so much money is raised so quickly is awesome."
       Fox wasn't the only media outlet paying attention. Shavee Leigh Benigni appeared live on WDIV early Saturday morning, getting her head shaved in the television studio by Tiffany Brandt-Randles, one of the event coordinators.
       As of Sunday evening, the 2014 Romeo St. Baldrick's event had raised $280,000. A final total will come once online donations, as well as donations made the day of the event, are tallied, said Danaj. To donate, go to

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