Naperville North grads shaving heads for classmate's cancer charity
Kira Couch of Lisle has been down this path before, and she saved the hats.
She's shaving her head Jan. 6 to raise money for a pediatric cancer research nonprofit called the Swifty Foundation, a cause that reflects both her childhood and her career goal.
She first did so in November 2014 to honor the memory of a classmate who died of a brain tumor at age 15 and to support the charity created by his family.
Formed in honor of Michael "Mikey" Gustafson of Woodridge, who died Jan. 6, 2013, the Swifty Foundation supports research on treatments for childhood cancers.
The first time Couch shaved her head for Swifty, she was a 16-year-old junior at Naperville North High School who got the atypical 'do along with her friend Bridget Gustafson -- Michael's twin sister.
Every time she'd flip the hair that was no longer there, Couch said she felt more driven to help achieve Michael's goal of making sure other kids with cancer don't have to meet the fate he did.
"It was just a constant reminder of Michael's presence in my life," Couch said. "It was a constant reminder of what my passion is, which is helping kids with cancer."
Couch today is a college sophomore studying biology in hopes of becoming a pediatric oncologist. This time, she has a different friend joining in the head-shaving event: 19-year-old Caitlin Holzer, a fellow Naperville North graduate from the Class of 2016 who also has fond memories of Michael's "presence and character."
"Knowing Michael and having been impacted by him growing up, and even today, it's something that has really changed the way I view the world," she said.
Holzer, who is studying psychology and political science at Montana State University, said she's motivated by Swifty's research mission. But she thinks sporting a shaved head will be a powerful experience
"The head-shaving thing is really cool because you get to stand in solidarity with people who have lost their hair from the treatment. Losing your hair is somehow just a real blow to the self esteem," Holzer said. "At the same time to me, one of the most important parts is really advancing research, which is where the donations come in."
Couch and Holzer are seeking a total of $7,500 for the Swifty Foundation, and they're accepting donations on a fundraising page at tinyurl.com/shave4hope.
Couch hopes to raise $2,500 for another cause she's become involved with at her college, Indiana University -- Purdue University Indianapolis. The school hosts a dance marathon to benefit pediatric cancer research at Riley Children's Hospital in Indianapolis, so Couch is putting half her fundraising toward that effort.
Patti Gustafson, Michael's mother, said she's moved by Couch's willingness to shave her head a second time and Holzer's increasing involvement with Swifty fundraising.
"I can't imagine shaving my hair and going around that vulnerable," Gustafson said. "It's such a gift."
The foundation, which gets its name from a nickname given to Michael by his grandfather, recently gave a $150,000 gift to Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago.
The money will fund a new position called "tissue navigator," to teach families of children with cancer what they need to do with tissue samples of their child's tumor in order to be prepared for treatment advances or research.
"Science will advance," Gustafson said. "And you want to be able to take advantage of whatever is down the pike."
Funding the new position is an example of the work Swifty has done in the five years since Michael's passing to raise money for pediatric brain cancer, increase research and encourage parents of children who die from brain tumors to donate tissue for scientific study.
As a shaving newbie, Holzer said she expects it'll feel cold when she returns to Montana for a new semester, minus her usual curly locks. But Couch is ready for what it will be like -- and she has a stash of supplies to keep herself and her friend covered.
"I still have a hefty stack of hats," she said, "from the first time around."