March 16, 2007

School’s unique fundraiser to assist children with cancer

After Joey Chamness, right, was diagnosed with cancer, his twin brother, Robbie, and other friends from St. Thomas Aquinas School shaved their heads for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. (Submitted photo)

After Joey Chamness, right, was diagnosed with cancer, his twin brother, Robbie, and other friends from St. Thomas Aquinas School shaved their heads for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

The story about the amazing gift of three Irish-Catholic men who shaved their heads one St. Patrick’s Day will come later.

So will the story of how a Catholic grade school in Indianapolis will become the first school in Indiana to hold an unusual fundraiser for children with cancer on March 22.

Both moments are part of the larger story that Chuck and Briget Chamness share—a story of heartbreak, faith and community that began two years ago at a special first Communion Mass for their twin sons.

It’s a story that still brings tears to Briget’s eyes.

At the time, Joey and Robbie Chamness were supposed to make their first Communion with their second-grade classmates at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Indianapolis. Yet when Joey was diagnosed with bone cancer in his left leg in February 2005, all the plans of the Chamness family suddenly changed.

Everything focused on efforts to remove the cancer, to keep Joey alive.

Three days before the scheduled first Communion Mass at St. Thomas that April, Joey and his parents had to fly to New York for an operation that would remove the tumor from his leg, a surgery that his parents had been warned might require the loss of Joey’s left knee.

So on that Wednesday morning, a special first Communion was celebrated for Joey and Robbie during the weekly school Mass. The twins received the Communion hosts in a moment that touched many hearts.

As Joey and his parents left for the airport following the first Communion, they also left knowing that a prayer vigil in the church had been organized, a vigil in which members of the school and parish community would take turns praying, covering every minute from that Wednesday until Joey’s surgery was over on Thursday.

“Think of how thankful you would be when they had that prayer vigil,” Chuck Chamness says. “People we didn’t even know were signing up for a half-hour to pray for Joey being cured of the cancer, for the doctors and for his long-term success.”

When they met with Joey’s surgeon before the operation on that Thursday, the Chamnesses told Dr. John Healey, “Be careful, good luck and you have an entire parish in Indianapolis praying for you.”

Healey smiled and said, “I always welcome prayer and divine intervention.”

Before the surgery began, Joey had to remove his two favorite chains from around his neck. One was a chain that had a medal of St. Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer patients. The other displayed a shark’s tooth.

Joey had eyed the shark’s tooth several weeks earlier when his family—which includes his older brother, Charlie, and his older sister, Sally—spent that spring break in southern Florida. After the Chamness family took a boat ride through the Everglades, the boat docked near a tacky souvenir shop. Chuck Chamness hustled his children to the car, ignoring their pleas to linger in the shop until Joey asked his dad if he could get a necklace with a shark’s tooth.

“I asked him why he wanted it,” Joey’s father recalls. “He told me when he loses his leg, he’ll be able to tell everyone that a shark took it off.”

Joey’s father let him get the shark’s tooth.

It was one of the memories that Chuck and Briget recalled as they waited through the hours of surgery.

They thought of how Joey’s chemotherapy made his hair start to fall out in late February 2005. On the day that a barber friend came to their house to shave the remaining hair from Joey’s head, Robbie asked if he could get his head shaved, too. The twins went to school “bald” together the next day.

By the end of the week, most of the boys in the second grade shaved their heads. So did several boys in the seventh grade, the grade that serves as older “faith partners” to the second-grade students at St. Thomas.

Joey’s parents also thought about how their faith had changed since Joey’s diagnosis.

“It deepened my faith,” Briget says. “I wondered how people who don’t have faith could get through this. I felt my faith was a comfort. They say when you use something, it gets better every day. My faith got stronger. We knew however it turned out, we were going to be able to handle it. In one sense, we were all alone in the hospital. But we felt the support and prayers of this whole group.”

Chuck and Briget also had the support of several friends from across the country who unexpectedly arrived at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York to be with them in the waiting room.

Joey’s parents had accepted the likely possibility that Joey would lose his left knee during the surgery. What mattered most to them was removing the threat to Joey’s life. Yet when Healey approached them after the surgery, his news stunned them.

“The best news we got that day was he was able to remove the tumor,” Chuck recalls.

Healey also gave them the rest of the news: Joey’s knee didn’t have to be amputated. During the surgery, Healey removed three inches of Joey’s femur. He then replaced that section of the bone with a cadaver bone, which was connected with screws and brackets so the leg could bear weight while the bone healed.

“Joey was thrilled to keep his leg,” Briget recalls.

The success of the operation and the sparing of Joey’s leg were relayed quickly to the St. Thomas community.

“I remember the prayer vigil as being a totally amazing experience,” says Karen Gardner, one of the vigil’s organizers and the physical education teacher at St. Thomas. “People really felt their prayers were answered when Joey didn’t lose his leg.”

Nearly two years later, Joey’s cancer is still in remission. The 10-year-old boy is able to walk and ride his bike. He’s also part of an effort to help children who have cancer.

During Joey’s early struggle with cancer, Chuck Chamness read an article in an insurance trade publication about three insurance executives from New York who came up with an unusual way to mark St. Patrick’s Day in 1999.

“They decided to shave their heads and do it with a cause in mind,” says Chuck, who also works in the insurance industry. “Their idea was to do it on St. Patrick’s Day, raise $17,000 on March 17, and give that money to children’s cancer research. Instead, they raised $100,000. They knew they were onto something.”

So those three Irish Catholics—Tim Kenny, John Bender and Enda McDonnell—started the St. Baldrick’s Foundation in 2000 to raise funds for childhood cancer research because they had known children with cancer while they were growing up.

The organization raises money by getting people to shave their heads—a sign of solidarity with children who have lost their hair because of cancer—and obtain donations from family and friends.

In 2006, the year when Chuck and Joey Chamness were “poster boys” for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, more than 11,000 people shaved their heads and more than $8 million was raised.

On March 22, St. Thomas Aquinas School will become the first school in Indiana to hold a schoolwide St. Baldrick’s head-shaving event. About 30 people have already signed up to get their heads shaved, including students, Karen Gardner, at least one mom and the principal, Jerry Flynn.

“We all know what Joey has been through,” Flynn says. “I think the entire community would do anything so that some day in the future we won’t have other little kids going through the same thing.”

Joey still remembers what it was like two years ago when he had to get his head shaved during his chemotherapy treatments. He remembers how much it meant to him when Robbie and others showed their support of him by getting their heads shaved.

“It was nice because I wasn’t the only bald person in my class,” he says.

He will shave his head again this year, this time as a sign of support for others, like the support he and his family received.

“Few people feel the love of a parish concentrated on them like we did when Joey was sick,” his father says. “You just don’t know how powerful that can be until it happens to you.”

(For more information about the St. Baldrick’s Foundation and St. Thomas event, call 888-899-BALD or check the Web site at †

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