Marlee Pack squeezed her best friend’s hand as Cameron McLaughlin’s curly, russet-colored locks dropped away from the hair clippers.
As hundreds of their Meridian Elementary School classmates cheered her on, Marlee leaned over to whisper to Cameron.
“I told her that I cried when I did it, but she didn’t. She was brave,” said Marlee, who plans to return to the Broomfield school after weeks of chemotherapy.
Minutes later the two sported matching bald heads. Cameron shed a few tears afterward, but said they weren’t for her hair. She was happy she could help her friend.
“I thought people would make fun of me,” Marlee said, “but people just supported me instead.”
“Be Bold, Be Brave, Go Bald” was a day of assemblies hosted by Meridian teacher Jody Hempelmann and Cameron’s mother, Cheray McLaughlin.
Longtime Broomfield resident Paul Derda narrated the action and led the assemblies in cheering for their teachers, principals and fellow students as they lined up on a stage.
About 80 students volunteered to either shave or donate their hair, organizers said. Some took the stage Wednesday, others opted to cut at home, and the rest were invited to Salon Toujours Belle that afternoon for haircuts.
Merdian raised more than $25,000 over the past two and a half weeks for St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a volunteer-powered organization that supports childhood cancer treatment research. Approximately $5,000 of the total money raised was through T-shirt sales and loose-coin collection
Last year, Marlee’s mother Shelly Pack noticed a bump on her daughter’s left foot. Since Marlee plays soccer, the family thought it was a sport-related injury. When it didn’t go away after a month, they sought a pediatrician who told them it was hematoma. A second opinion, an MRI and a biopsy later, a specialist diagnosed Marlee with Alveolar Rhabdomyosarcoma, a type of cancer that develops from connective tissues in the body.
A few weeks later doctors amputated her foot to remove the tumor and Marlee began 40 weeks of chemotherapy.
Marlee, who just turned 9, finished her last chemotherapy treatment on Feb. 9, and plans to return to class after Spring Break.
“Even after her amputation and chemo, she has never let it slow her down,” Shelly Pack said. “She thought ‘this has got to happen and I have to deal with it,’ and she did it with a smile on her face.”
The family agreed to host the event after they were approached by Hempelmann. In the end, three female teachers agreed to go under the shears, including Amy Johnson who was inspired by her daughter Elle.
The two posed for photos after the haircut and ran their hands over the prickly soft bristles.
“We want to stand in solidarity with Marlee as she comes back to school and I want to stand next to my daughter,” Johnson said.
Elle had another silver lining.
“Now I don’t have to brush my hair,” she said.
Erin Dupper, was the first teacher to volunteer to go bald. Johnson, one of three first grade teachers to volunteer, didn’t see losing her hair as particularly brave or sacrificial.
“You have a connection to your students,” she said. “I’m just amazed we raised as much money as we did. We’re surrounded by great people.”
The school started a Meridian Mustangs team on the St. Baldrick’s website where they signed up more than 100 students, teachers and community members who solicited donations.
“I think it’s Marlee’s spirit,” Johnson said. “I think they see her and want to support her mission. It’s not for her personally — it’s the cause she fights for.”
When Marlee was granted a wish by the Make-A-Wish Foundation her mother, who knows Marlee loves sea turtles, suggested a tropical trip to Hawaii to see them. When Marlee couldn’t think of what she wanted, she decided to give her wish away.
Instead of getting a present herself, Marlee decided to help other children diagnosed with cancer.
“She had such a hard time at chemo, it was so emotionally draining,” Pack said. “She wants to make Build-A-Bears and deliver them to kids that are going through chemo.”
In April, the two will make 16 bears at the Flatiron Crossing Mall and have more than 50 more delivered to their home.
“That says a little bit about her,” Pack said.
Support from the school, neighbors and Discovery Christian Church made it possible for the family to cope with the surgeries and chemo, Pack said. People delivered meals, dropped off packages at their home and raised thousands of dollars for an organization Marlee feels strongly about.
“It’s just amazing because they all shaved their heads for me,” Marlee said. “I just want to say thank you.”
Jennifer Rios: 303-473-1361, email@example.com or Twitter.com/Jennifer_Rios