Shear solidarity

Shear solidarity

SINGAPORE - It all started as an effort to raise awareness for children suffering from cancer. In 2003, IT consultant Adrian Lee, as a volunteer with the Children's Cancer Foundation, told his colleagues he would shave his head to show empathy for young cancer patients who feel self-conscious about losing their hair after undergoing chemotherapy.

To show their support, they offered to donate money, so he put a piggy bank in the office for their contributions. Eight other friends joined him in going bald and the group raised $2,000 after about a month.

Fast forward 10 years and the movement, now known as Hair For Hope, raised $4 million this year, with more than 7,300 people shearing their hair when it was held in July.

The annual initiative, which raises awareness and money for the foundation, has gained such wide recognition that schools and companies are asking to hold their own shaving sessions.

The funds help children suffering from cancer and their families with services such as counselling, caregiver support and financial assistance.

The project also made news last month, when St Margaret's Secondary School principal Marion Tan sparked furore online after she insisted that five students who had shaved their heads for the charity wear wigs in school, as they had promised. She later relented.

The success of the movement shows that people identify with a strong message and have empathy, says Mr Lee, 40.

It was an old Spanish television commercial in support of children with cancer that inspired him. In the clip, a girl is shown snipping off chunks of her hair with a pair of scissors before greeting her sister, who has cancer and is bald from chemotherapy.

"It is a powerful video that shows solidarity," says one of the event's nine pioneers Steven Chung, 40.

All Singaporeans, the pioneers have been volunteers with the foundation since 1999. Today, MrChung, an assistant director at Sentosa Development Corporation, still treasures a 2003 clipping from English daily The Straits Times that shows them beaming while showing off their freshly shorn pates for the first time.

When the picture appeared, people started asking when the next event would be held, he recalls. The following year, they named it Hair For Hope.

"It was a good concept and a strong symbol of support, so we started driving the movement by gathering a team and planning an event," he adds.

Another volunteer, software engineer Eng Kern Shen, 37, got to work setting up a website, while the others sent e-mail blasts through the volunteers' mailing list, printed donation cards and found sponsors. For example, the now-defunct Orchard Emerald mall provided a rent-free event space and Quest Salon offered the free services of their hairdressers.

That year, 73 people had their heads shaved, raising close to $48,000.

In 2005, the event was held in Tampines Mall and Wisma Atria. It drew 310 people and raised $147,547. That same year, Hair For Hope won the most innovative fund-raising initiative award from the National Volunteer and Philanthrophy Centre.

From 2008, it began to be run fully by staff from the foundation. In 2009, funds raised through the event crossed the $1-million mark, with 1,842 people shaving their heads at Novena Square. It has now evolved into a mass participation event, with scores of companies and schools holding their own hair-shaving sessions to support the foundation.

Foundation chairman Tay Miah Hiang, 45, says Hair For Hope has caught on because the cause tugs at heartstrings. "We are fortunate that even in the worst of times, people are still donating because the terms 'children' and 'cancer' are emotive."

The oncologist first went bald at a Hair For Hope event in 2006, when he was working as a consultant at the National Cancer Centre. His effort garnered more than $30,000 in donations.

"Some patients donated because going bald makes a statement," says Dr Tay. "They asked me what happened and even joked that they had more hair than I did. Then they asked how they could help."

Mr Chung says each person who goes bald for the movement is a new spokesman for cancer awareness. "Even if, say, the whole football team shaves together as a fun thing, each person will feel the sting when he walks out alone and gets stares from strangers."

That person then develops empathy and learns about cancer and how it affects people. This is how awareness of the disease grows, he says.

But there were reservations about the growing scale of the event. Dr Tay recalls: "When we were doing this, we did ask ourselves how big we wanted it to be. If we created fanfare, with publicity and sponsors, it cannot help but carry that commercial slant.

"It might turn ugly and we lose that meaning."

He decided that the best way is to remain transparent about operating costs and where the money goes.

Each year, the foundation spends about $100,000 on Hair For Hope to defray costs such as the printing of collaterals and T-shirts, website maintenance and event set-up. Advertising is provided free by corporate sponsors such as SPH MediaBoxOffice and StarHub.

The space for hair-shaving sessions is provided rent-free by participating malls, while salons, such as Jean Yip Group and Next Hair Salon, have jumped in to help for free.

Companies and schools have also approached the foundation to hold satellite events.

In 2007, the first such events were held at Edgefield Primary School, Montfort Junior School and Singapore Tourism Board, with 107 people going under the razor.

To date, Hair For Hope has held at least 100 spin-off events at companies and schools.

Mr Robin Chan, 49, who had his head shaved at Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery in May this year, is credited as the Singaporean who raised the largest amount this year - $34,818. The largest amount ever raised is $119,980 by a private banker in 2011.

Mr Chan went bald as a tribute to his dad, who died of nasopharyngeal cancer in 2004, and his girlfriend, who battled breast cancer for 13 years and died in 2008.

The senior associate director at the Institutional Review Board in the National University of Singapore says: "Hair For Hope sends the right message because each person becomes a walking cause for cancer.

"It is not so much about the funds raised, but the awareness that comes out of it. I am just happy to be an intermediary between people who want to do good and children suffering from cancer who need help."

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