By Ann Marie Shambaugh
Risa Carpenter doesn’t consider herself brave. All she did was sit down for a haircut.
But the crowd that gathered around her March 4 in Carmel thought otherwise.
Carpenter, 45, traded her shoulder-length dark brown locks for a shaved head at a fundraiser for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which funds grants for childhood cancer research. She was one of 93 people to go bald March 3 and 4 for the annual Indianapolis Youth Hockey Association event to support St. Baldrick’s, which raised $32,570.
“I wanted to be able to go out and not have hair and not hide it with hats and be able to say, ‘I still look really beautiful’ and ‘I still look really feminine,’” she said after the shave. “It was such a good cause, and in taking a huge step that so many other people view as a huge deal I was able to bring in a ton of donations.”
Carpenter’s goal was to raise $500, but in less than a month she collected more than $5,000 for St. Baldrick’s, becoming the event’s top fundraiser.
Although most of the shavees were young male hockey players volunteering with teammates, for Carpenter the decision was more personal.
Her journey began in mid-2015 when her daughter, Marleah, then 4 years old, began experiencing symptoms that doctors believed could have been caused by a brain tumor. Preparing for the worst, the New Palestine family was surprised to learn she had Miller-Fisher Syndrome, a rare nerve disease related to Guillain-Barré Syndrome.
Marleah spent a month in the hospital, followed by a year of rehabilitation. She still suffers some lingering effects but is about 85 percent back to normal, Carpenter said, adding that she’s not likely to ever make a full recovery.
During Marleah’s stay at Riley Hospital for Children, another young patient experiencing similar symptoms was admitted. But for Brooks Blackmore, the diagnosis was different. He had an inoperable brain tumor, and after battling for nearly a year passed away in May 2016.
Carpenter never met the Blackmore family but followed their story online and was amazed by the similarities. Marleah and Brooks were approximately the same age when admitted; they went to the same hospital within a week of each other; they experienced the same symptoms; and they both came from families with three kids.
“There were so many similarities. The only difference is that we got the lucky diagnosis, for a lack of a better term, of Miller-Fisher, and he got the brain tumor,” Carpenter said. “I really felt compelled to follow this story because it could have been us. It was so close. I had a lot of self-reflection and struggle of why was it him and why wasn’t it us?”
Tracey Blackmore, Brooks’ mother, remembers reading a letter Carpenter sent in December 2015 along with a card for Brooks’ birthday.
“It was so heartfelt and touching,” Blackmore said. “I was in tears, because not everyone would take the time to do that for someone they have never met. I could tell she had a heart of gold and truly was touched by Brooks’ brave fight for his life.”
When she found out Brooks died, Carpenter said she was devastated.
“I needed him to make it. I needed that one to be a win just because of how attached I felt, oddly, to this family I’d never met,” she said. “Then he passed in May and it was tough for me for a long time. It was hard to communicate because I’d never met this boy or this family. I showed up at the wake and I was this blubbery mess.”
Nearly a year later, Carpenter and her family have moved to Arlington, Va., but she is still impacted by Brooks’ story. When she found out that the St. Baldrick’s fundraiser was the same weekend she planned to be back in Indiana for another appointment, she didn’t think twice about signing up — although it did take a bit of convincing to get her husband on board.
Blackmore stood nearby throughout the shave, providing encouragement and feedback throughout the transformation. She said she was “blown away” when she learned that Carpenter was taking this step in honor of Brooks and other children in her life who have battled cancer.
“I was so honored that she wanted to do something brave to gain awareness and to help raise money for childhood cancer,” Blackmore said. “It’s easy to look the other way or think, ‘That will never happen to my child, so why do I need to donate?’ She didn’t do these things. She did the exact opposite.”
Carpenter was all smiles as the hair came off, first in two ponytails to donate, then as it shrunk into a mohawk for a photo to surprise a friend. When the razor removed the last patches of hair she said she would do it again in a heartbeat – and she’s encouraging other women to do it, too.
“I feel like if anyone here did it, we’d all look super-great,” she said.
Blackmore is a big fan of Carpenter’s transformation.
“Risa is beautiful inside and out. She rocks her new look!” she said. “We are forever grateful and I will always remember this emotional event.”
The St. Baldrick’s challenge
St. Baldrick’s Foundation started as a challenge between three friends in 2000, but since then more than 400,000 people have volunteered to shave their heads at more than 10,000 locations to show solidarity with kids facing cancer and to support childhood cancer research.
For 2017, more than 19,000 people – including 3,000 females – have committed to going bald at more than 800 scheduled events.
Upcoming events in central Indiana benefiting St. Baldrick’s include:
- Northside Knights of Columbus, 6 to 9:30 p.m. March 10, 2100 E. 71st St., Indianapolis
- St. Thomas Aquinas School, 2 to 3 p.m. March 17, 4600 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis
- Broad Ripple Haverford Little League, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 3, 5306 Haverford Ave., Indianapolis
For more information or to register as a shavee, visit stbaldricks.org. Do donate to Risa Carpenter’s fundraising page, visit stbaldricks.org/participants/mypage/891699/2017.