SOMONAUK – Grace Ballas walked into the Somonauk Middle School gymnasium in front of hundreds of schoolmates and teachers with a full head of hair.
She walked out bald.
On the final day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the 13-year-old made sure people in her community were aware of the disease by having her 22-inch locks shaved off in front of her school. It was the culmination of three weeks of fundraising that generated more than $2,700 for the Susan G. Komen Foundation to go along with her personal sacrifice for Locks of Love.
Ballas said she was inspired to shave her head as a show of support of her former teachers Laura Stinson and Alison Bryant, who both fought and survived breast cancer.
“It was sad,” Ballas recalled of watching Bryant fight cancer. “I remember she had to shave her head, but she looked real pretty.”
Although the inspiration came from her teachers, the idea came from her friend Shannon McGregory – an eighth-grader from Sandwich who shaved her head twice when she was in fourth and fifth grade at Dummer Elementary School.
McGregory said she gained the courage to shave her head for the school’s St. Baldrick’s event after her own friend became the first girl to shave her head along with the boys. Now, almost 20 girls shave their head during Dummer’s annual event and roughly $100,000 has been raised during its five-year history.
“When you have cancer, you don’t get to choose whenever you shave your head,” McGregory said. “I’m just so proud of (Ballas) and was really excited she was willing to do it in front of the whole school.”
The chain of kindness and inspiration has been passed, and Bryant told all the students she hopes it continues.
Bryant, who attended the event with Stinson, was emotional as she recalled battling cancer and the acceptance the students showed. She said she felt at home when students told her to take off her hat and always encouraged her.
“I felt normal here and no one treated me differently even though I was bald,” Bryant said. “There was no place I would rather be other than with my family. And if I couldn’t be with my family, I might as well have been with my Somonauk family.”
The support for Ballas’ cause was evident inside and outside the community.
Jay Streicher, principal at Somonauk Middle School, said he did everything he could to support Ballas when she first approached him with the idea three weeks ago.
He organized a “Pink Out” day at the school that generated $600 for the fundraiser and on Wednesday he donned a pink mohawk.
“I’m not a bit surprised Grace did this,” Streicher said. “She’s a firecracker.”
Outside Somonauk, Ballas found just as much support thanks to her classmate Marta Salgado. Salgado told family members who work at Simmons Middle School in East Aurora about what Ballas was doing. Students and teachers at that school raised $450, which was presented at Wednesday’s event.
“I thought it was cool,” Salgado said. “I didn’t think anyone that young would ever do it.”
When it was time for Ballas to shave her head, her mother – who once was wary of the idea – was her biggest supporter.
“When you have the support of all these people behind you, look at what can happen,” Lisa Ballas said.