BURRELL TOWNSHIP — For 15 minutes Friday, the Blairsville High School gym was the biggest hair styling salon in Indiana County.
An estimated 700 students from the middle and senior high wings rallied in support of a cancer-stricken faculty member and cheered 17 students and teachers who donated their hair for wigs for patients undergoing radiation and chemotherapy.
Blairsville’s yearly “Pink Out Day,” when students wear pink clothing lettered with slogans representing the fight against cancer, featured two large financial donations.
Organizers wrote out a huge, symbolic check for $500 to assist faculty member Denise Zabinski, who ironically is the school’s speech therapist and is suffering from esophageal cancer. Zabinski, who has been on leave from work for most of the year, took part in the assembly in digital form, as assembly leaders connected with Zabinski by way of live online technology.
The connection on “Duo” software allowed students to see Zabinski’s face displayed on a computer pad while she watched the events over a pad at her home.
A highlight of the student-run program was a performance by student singer Adrian Escalona, who performed Sara Bareilles’ “She Used to be Mine” from the Broadway musical “Waitress.” The student body stood and roared approval of Escalona’s performance, the same song that he recorded on a video that’s been viewed by 2.7 million people on the Facebook website.
The cheering rose to a near deafening level as the hair donors were introduced and ushered to a makeshit salon at the center of the basketball court. One by one, each had 6 to 12 or more inches of hair, years of growth, carefully whacked and packaged for production as wigs for cancer patients left hairless by their aggressive treatments.
“It’s been years!” teacher Maureen Bell said. “How long has it been since my hair was short?” she asked a colleague.
Bell teaches the family and consumer sciences class and is the National Honor Society adviser at Blairsville.
“This is my way to help fight cancer,” Bell said. “They need me — they need real hair wigs.”
There was some reassurance for the hair donors, whose sudden “squared off” look after an eight-second trim job carried high entertainment value for those attending the assembly. In a corridor just outside the gym, a team of eight hair stylists from London’s Salons of Blairsville and Latrobe reshaped the remaining locks of each of the donors, and assured that each would have a look suitable for going out in public.
The students topped the assembly with a second big donation, $150 to the Birdie’s Closet program at Indiana Regional Medical Center, a program that offers supplies to help patients with appearance-related side effects of cancer treatment.
Art teacher Courtney Scherf, an organizer of the Pink Out Day and one of the hair donors, said Blairsville students have donated about $12,000 to Birdie’s Closet over the last six years, but that the amount this year is less because the school divided the beneficiaries.
At the outset of their assembly, hundreds of students fluttered handmade signs that declared they were “Standing Up to Cancer” — each sign lettered with the name of a family member or friend who now is battling cancer, or one who has died from it.
“This also was about challenging the kids to show more outward support,” Scherf said. “Make a phone call, go visit somebody.
“I love doing this because this gives kids some purposes, things like positivity, hope, and to learn what it means to support each other.”