Tara's Take: Bald is Beautiful

By: Tara Wheeler
By: Tara Wheeler

An inside look at what it was like to fundraise and shave my head for the St. Baldrick's Foundation to raise money for pediatric cancer research.

A year and a half ago I shaved my head for the St. Baldrick's Foundation to raise money for pediatric cancer research. Here are exerpts from two newsletters I wrote, six months apart. The first is during a national fundraising blitz while I was Miss Virginia and the second is recapping the actual shaving event later that year.

First, here are some video links:

My Appearance On America's Newsroom

My Appearance on Good Morning America

Miss Virginia Newsletter:

Some people believe that one person cannot make a difference. I have always know that being Miss Virginia carried the power to have an influence and make a difference in the causes that are important to me but never did I think it would be demonstrated like it has in the past month! Along with the national exposure I received due to my St. Baldrick’s project, I was also flooded with letters from people across the country. One letter shared this “Starfish” story with me:


“One day a man was walking along a beach when he noticed a young boy throwing starfish into the ocean. ‘The tide has gone out, if I don’t throw them back, they’ll die’, the boy said. ‘Son’, the man said ‘Don’t you realize there are thousands of starfish and miles and miles of beach? You can’t possibly make a difference’. The boy picked up a starfish and threw it back into the sea…’I made a difference to that one.’”


This past month, I didn’t raise half a million dollars and I didn’t cure kids cancer… but, I made a difference.


After my first announcement about possibly shaving my head, I began a grassroots campaign to do everything possible to raise as much money and awareness as I could. I had to immediately plant as many seeds as possible in order to have a shot at the $500,000 goal. I drove over 5,000 miles last month and was getting an average of 4-5 hours of sleep a night as I was all consumed with this huge new responsibility in addition to my already packed schedule of Miss Virginia duties. 

Within a few days, countless MVO volunteers, local titleholders, and community members reached out to me offering to help.  We wrote letters to every major talk-show host, sent press releases to hundreds of media outlets, politicians, celebrities, and even mass-called the Ryan Seacrest and Delilah radio shows! We tried everything! After a night of little sleep, sipping on my third Red bull, after doing a morning show interview and three school presentations, and after doing a newspaper interview in the car, Sherri McKinney called me while I was driving from Virginia Beach to Roanoke offering to help me produce a YouTube video in hopes of gaining more exposure. I don’t think she expected me to say “I’m 20 minutes from where you are, let’s do it NOW!”, but she invited me into her work in Richmond and she and her coworkers helped me create a YouTube video promoting my project…  little did we know, just days later that video would be on the Greta Van Susteren show! Dr. Vakay (my dentist), Wendi, and my dad all called at the same time saying “Greta just said they’re going to talk about you!”—I had no idea!


A few days earlier, Good Morning America had contacted me about possibly doing a phone-in interview but that’s all I had heard from national media before then.  After the Greta spot, I was interviewed by the Washington Post for an article that was supposed to be a small blip on an inside page. The reporter soon called me back saying “Our editor likes the idea of a bald Miss VA so much; you’re going on the front page of the style section tomorrow!”.  After the Post story went to press, I received a more deliberate call from Good Morning America saying that they had read the story in the Post, that I should expect to get a ton of media calls, and that they wanted the exclusive and could fly me to New York City tomorrow to be on the show! AH! Suddenly, the Miss Virginia team, especially Harlen and Wendi, went into overdrive. Calls were coming in from Good Morning America, Extra!, America’s Newsroom, and others. Not only did we have an already hectic Miss Virginia schedule on our hands, but we now had to fit in numerous fundraisers and a massive influx of interview requests.  I am so grateful for everyone in the MVO and all of the volunteers who worked so hard to help me in my endeavor.


When I got the call about GMA, I was in Virginia Beach with Linda Haas speaking at schools and all I had packed were school outfits... I didn’t want to wear my St. Patrick’s Day school outfit on national TV! The next day, I found last minute wardrobe for the show, did three more school speeches, drove to Washington DC, packed for NYC, flew out that night and the next morning I was on Good Morning America. Robin Roberts is incredible! For those of you who don’t know her story, this time last year, she shaved her head on TV as she battled breast cancer so she was very supportive of my effort. When the producers told me Robin Roberts was excited to meet me, it was like someone telling me Brad Pitt has a crush on me. I was pumped!

I also got to meet Diane Sawyer, one of my favorite journalists! Directly after, a car picked me up from the ABC studios in Times Square and took me to FOX to be on “America’s Newsroom” .

Afterwards, I met with Guy Jacobson from the Redlight Children Campaign then it was back on a plane to DC to be on the “Washington Post Live” show that evening before I got to relax for dinner with Miss DC, Kate-Marie Grinold. I may not have won Miss America, but I definitely felt like I had a Miss America schedule that day!


After the national media tour, I received hundreds of e-mails. People shared their personal stories with me. Others told me that they never thought they would look up to a pageant girl but they hoped their daughter grew up to be just like me and now their stereotype has been shattered and they see what the Miss America program and all of its titleholders stand for. Dozens of people confided in me that they had lost their jobs and were struggling financially but still felt compelled to give what they could. I was brought to tears daily and humbled daily by how many had taken to my project.
I realized that my partnership with St. Baldrick’s could do more than raise money for pediatric cancer research; I was in a position to help redefine beauty. I think we have all been self-conscious or criticized at one point or another for the way we look. As Miss Virginia, sometimes I feel like I may not meet the beauty expectations people have of me. By offering to shave my head and show that beauty is as beauty does, I can draw attention to the need to re-evaluate how we, as a society, deem someone “beautiful”. Because it’s more than your hair. It’s more than your make-up, clothes, or weight. It’s about doing beautiful things for others.


About a week later, the Washington Post called again to tell me that they had been flooded with calls and letters from readers wanting to know about me. They did follow-up articles and put me in their March Madness basketball-style “Gossip Bracket” in the “Hometown Heroes” region. Readers could send in their picks… Shockingly to me, I won the “Hometown Heroes” region to make it to the “Final Four” where I was in the company of Oprah, Michelle Obama, and the Palin’s.


The last week of fundraising was insane and I had pretty much ran myself into the ground and gotten sick. Thankfully, many people were working to help me. Sol Tucker, a celebrity party planner, planned fundraisers for me free of charge and I was excited to see many local titleholders and my new friends, such as Andy Baldwin, come out to support me! At a fundraiser at the Hudson in DC, I met the Rowell family, and 9-year-old Breanna who was diagnosed with a brain tumor a year ago. Breanna has a significant bald spot on the front of her head from her surgery. She wears a scarf to cover it and refused to take off the scarf until I arrived at the fundraiser (I was split between two fundraisers in the same night, the first at the Crystal City Sports Pub, thanks guys!). When I arrived, she proudly showed me her bald spot and said she wasn’t afraid since I was going to be bald too. She gave me two scarves of my own and some great advice: “Don’t be ashamed to show the world you can be bald and beautiful”. I won’t. 

I also got to hang out with Allyson, Libby, and a new friend, 4-year-old Alana, to kick off the Salem Red Sox baseball season where the team auctioned off the first base for St. Baldricks! Numerous businesses such as Joey’s Hotdogs in Richmond (donated 100% of a day’s sales!), S&K, Applebees, Shackelfords, and other restaurants, professional athletes, organizations, schools across the country (including one inner city Philadelphia charter school that raised $200!), all helped fundraise. I am in awe and am so grateful for everyone who has gone out of their way to support this cause.


On April 11th, though I was optimistic that a huge cardboard check from a celebrity might roll in, I did not meet the $500,000 goal and could not shave my head at the St. Baldrick’s event. I was disappointed but I realize in one month we worked together to raise $24,000 for the kids and that is no small feat. The Miss Virginia Scholarship Fund and the Children’s Miracle Network will get $3,000 each, respectively. Art McMaster even came out to the official event at the Crystal City Sports Pub to show his support! I will continue to fundraise and I’m confident that after my reign is through (which is coming up too soon!), I will raise enough money and shave before 2009 is over. I am thankful to the Miss Virginia and Miss America organization for allowing me to pursue this unconventional idea when many would have immediately shot me down.  Being Miss Virginia is what you make of it and I am thankful that I represent an organization that does not make the crown define me, but allows me to help define the crown.

 

And I actually went through with it!

Post-Shave newsletter:

 

I have always believed in two things: “To whom much is given, much is expected” and “Beauty is as beauty does”. On Monday, September 21, I was able to use my title as a former Miss Virginia and my new position as a TV reporter to draw much needed attention and funds to a very worthy cause: pediatric cancer research. I partnered with the St. Baldrick’s Foundation to raise over $50,000 for kids with cancer by shaving my head in solidarity with the children suffering from the disease. 
I was humbled by the outpouring of support from the sports community.

DC United’s Devon McTavish braved the clippers along with me, and even Mike Wise and Ryan Zimmerman stopped by the Crystal City Sports Pub (where the big shave took place) to check out my new ‘do! Mike Green from the Caps approached me at the Sneaker Ball to tell me about a dream he had that he was bald… do I see a trend catching on??


Immediately after the shaving took place, I boarded a red-eye train to New York City to begin a media tour. Two hours of sleep later I was in the make-up chair at Good Morning America. Bruce Willis just happened to be a guest on the show that day and, after a debate as to who looks better bald, the people have spoken: ME! Robyn Roberts even took some time to give me advice on my new career as a reporter… and she would know after spending years on ESPN!

                

Over the course of the week I was featured on America’s Newsroom, Inside Edition, the Daily Show, as a headline on aol.com, and TMZ.  It’s crazy to think that all of this is happening over a haircut!

  

 

I’ve been called “courageous” for shaving my head… I’m a healthy young woman living a very blessed life.  I am not “courageous”. The 7-year-old battling cancer who lost her hair and gave it to the birds outside her hospital window to make a nest, who was made fun of in school for being bald, who is sick and scared but still knows how to smile and play… THAT is courage. THAT is a hero.



When we look at the world’s problems, such as cancer, as a whole it’s overwhelming; like a million starfish stranded on hundreds of miles of beach with no hope. But when we look at what we as individuals can do to positively impact one person’s life at a time, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish as a society.

                                                               

Whether it’s raising money for a pediatric cancer research, recycling, or volunteering to coach a youth sports team, who you are makes a difference every day.  Don’t  waste the opportunity to make someone else’s life a little better.

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