Remembering Paxten: Asheville firefighter Rob Mitchell, front, lost his son to cancer four years ago. This year, fellow firefighters Mike Webb (right) and Mike Riley (left) may give up their hair in a Sept. 22 St. Baldricks fundraising event. photo by Bill Rhodes
On Saturday, Sept. 22, at least 42 firefighters and other community volunteers will shave their heads at the Asheville Fire Department's Station 10 in West Asheville. In partnership with national cancer-fighting charity St. Baldricks, participants aim to raise awareness and money for crucial research, so that no parent has to experience the loss that Buncombe County resident and Asheville firefighter Rob Mitchell did: In 2008, his four-year-old son Paxten died, overtaken by the hypodiploid form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
"When Paxten was really sick, and I would pray silently next to him, sometimes he would talk in his sleep and respond to what I had been praying," says Mitchell. "Of course, all parents say this about their kids, but Paxten was an amazing kid. Amazing."
According to the American Childhood Cancer Organization, cancer is the No. 1 disease that takes children’s lives. Since the organization formed two decades ago, the five-year cure rate has improved from 20 to nearly 75 percent. Nonetheless, the effect on a family can be long lasting and sometimes devastating.
When he realized that his son was going to die, Mitchell says, "I was angry at God. Why me? Why him? Why kids at all?"
In the past, the Mitchell family has held toy runs and blood drives to help other kids and honor Paxten’s memory. Toys went to children going through chemotherapy; the blood drive was a huge success. But events like this left Mitchell “feeling down,” he recalls. “I have changed in so many ways since he died, it is hard for me to understand everything."
This year, the Asheville Firefighters Association is stepping in, organizing an event that promises a “sense of fun.” Firefighter and association spokesperson Angie Bell contacted St. Baldricks, which bills itself as “a volunteer-driven charity committed to funding the most promising research to find cures for childhood cancers and give survivors long and healthy lives.” She “was impressed with [the nonprofit’s] efficiency and transparency.”
Twelve years ago, the nonprofit started on St. Patrick's Day when two insurance executives dared each other to shave their heads as a way to raise $17,000 on March 17, committing the money directly to childhood cancer research (of the $5.6 billion in federal funds allocated annually for cancer research, only $180 million or 3 percent goes to childhood cancers, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).
But at day’s end, the pair had $104,000 in hand. The rest is hairless history. So far, St. Baldricks volunteers have shaved nearly 250,000 heads and raised $146 million, with 82 percent of those funds going directly to childhood cancer research, according to the organization’s annual report.
Although the organization supplies a coach who helps get an event off the ground, St. Baldricks relies heavily on volunteers. As Bell notes, "I could not do this without the help of the wives, and of course the guys and gals who will be shaved on Saturday.” She also mentions a few local contributors, such as ACE Construction Enterprises, Best Bites for Pets, and WOW Nutrition, which have led the way in fundraising outside the fire department. And AFD rookie-school firefighters have formed a fundraising team. "These people don't even know Rob or Paxten [Mitchell], and yet there they are, showing how firefighters help each other," says Bell.
AFD Rescue 3 Captain Mike Webb, who sports a head of brown curls, has contributors bidding against each other: If the “keep it” camp brings in the most donations, he will have to let it grow for a year — otherwise, he’ll be bald by day’s end on Sept. 22.
Other participants include North Carolina’s firefighter of the year, Jay Bettencourt, and AFD Fire Chief Scott Burnette. Several civilians will get buzzed, and at least two women have signed up, says Bell.
Will Mitchell shave his head? "Not this year. When Paxten was sick, I kept my head shaved in support of him. I am not sure I am ready for that just yet."
For more information about St. Baldricks, call 1-888-899-BALD or visit StBaldricks.org. For information about the Sept. 22 event in Asheville, call Bell at 778-2221.
Bill Rhodes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 144, or firstname.lastname@example.org.