Michelle Perk took over the microphone in Southeast Middle School’s gym, where every student at the school gathered Friday morning to witness what has become an annual tradition.
“Are we ready to cut some hair?” Perk asked, drawing cheers from the students.
For three weeks, the students had been working toward a goal of $10,000, which will be donated to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, in honor of several breast cancer survivors who are connected to the school in some way, Perk said. As of 7:30 a.m., when the chairs, scissors and clippers were being lined up, they were just $500 short of their goal, but thanks to continuous donations through the fundraiser app, donors quickly filled the gap.
The morning’s festivities included three shaved heads and five cut ponytails, totaling an estimated 52 inches of hair — which will be donated to make wigs for cancer patients who have lost their hair — a “best dressed in pink” contest and a raffle drawing to cut a classmate’s hair.
Perk and her daughter Annabelle both volunteered to cut their hair for the event.
“They’ve been growing their hair out for a while now,” said Mollee Vicknair, mother and grandmother to the pair, whose battle with breast cancer inspired the fundraiser, in the first place.
“Everyone pulls together like family here. It’s great to see this much support,” Vicknair said.
The first time Vicknair had cancer, 20 years ago, Perk was 12 years old — the same age Annabelle is now. “She was so strong; she always has been,” Vicknair said of her daughter. Vicknair’s son, 3 years old at the time she was going through chemotherapy, had a harder time understanding what was happening, she said, and it was Perk who helped him through.
“And me. When I was really sick, she would make my favorite meal, which was peanut butter and jelly with root beer,” Vicknair said.
Watching her daughter, a single mom, round up the support of an entire student body for her and other breast cancer patients, Vicknair couldn’t be more proud.
In truth, Perk said, the credit for the fundraiser goes to her students.
When she starts off the year, Perk said her goal is to forge her students into a family.
“I want them supporting each other. It’s fine to be competitive, and they are, but when they see each other struggling, the kids who get it will jump in and help each other out.”
That applies to everything from the classroom to personal and family problems, she said. All she had to do was tell her students how helpless she felt when her mother was sick for the second time.
In response, Perk and her students started the Baton Rouge Kids Fighting Cancer Race for the Cure team in 2010. “I asked them what they wanted the goal to be, and one of my students, Chauncy Honore, yelled out, ‘10 grand!’ Now, keep in mind, this is a Title I school — kids here don’t have a ton of money. But I didn’t tell them it was too high; I didn’t discourage them. I said, ‘OK. Let’s do it.’ ”
At the end of three weeks, they had met their goal, and Perk cut her hair. For the next few years, they just did fundraising and had an annual presence as a team at the Race for the Cure, walking in honor of Vicknair.
Over the years, they’ve added both team members and survivors to their group and, since Perk’s hair had grown back, went for another $10,000 goal.
“We’re well over $10,000 now,” Perk said — more than $30,000 in all.
This year, the school had 75 students participating in the March 7 walk, plus a few teachers and parents. Most of the students’ entry fees were paid by supporters of the team. Aside from learning the benefits of volunteering and getting involved, Perk said her students are learning that they can set and meet goals that seem too big, if they set their minds to it.
But it’s also a day of fun for everyone. Winn-Dixie sponsors the team, she said, and provided a catered lunch at the Perkins Road Community Park and a day of rock wall climbing after the race.
She doesn’t intend to stop anytime soon, nor will her students.
“They look forward to this all year,” Perk said. “We’ve gone from a team of two to more than 100. So there’s no telling. Each year, we keep multiplying and getting bigger. Last year, we were at 60 people; this year 100, and hopefully next year, we’ll be at 200.”
“I’m so proud of these kids. Now I want them to win a medal. If they come in first, second or third place, they’ll get a medal, and I want them to have that tangible reward for their hard work,” she said.
To help Kids Fighting Cancer reach their goal, donate at www.batonrouge.info-komen.org/goto/brkidsfightingcancer.
Donations will be accepted through April 7.