Hair is important, especially in high school, but that didn’t stop a few dozen students at Bethel’s Kuskokwim Learning Academy boarding school from shaving off their hair in support of a teacher undergoing chemotherapy. It was also a chance for some students to remember family who died from the disease.
In a corner room at the school, two classroom chairs are doubling as make shift barber chairs. More than a dozen students stand in line waiting for their turn in the seat.
“I think you could just shave it off,” Brenda Woods says.
At 16, she has a pretty round face and a full head of thick dark hair. She says it’s all coming off in support of Connie Sankwich, a teacher who has stage two ovarian cancer.
“I was thinking about it for a couple of days but I thought that I’d just cut it short but after I watched those other guys hair get their hair shaved I thought that I should do the same because short hair doesn’t look like it’s supportive to the people of cancer in my opinion,” Woods says.
Stan Corp dutifully buzzes away. He’s run a barber shop in Bethel for over 20 years and is volunteering his services at the school.
Doug Boyer, Principal at Kuskokwim Learning Academy stands nearby. He’s tall, towering over his students as he also waits for his turn in the chair. He says Sankwich is a beloved teacher who taught a character building class.
“The main concept of the program is that a small act of kindness will start a chain reaction of kindness,” Boyer says. “The students now wanted to come back and the chain reaction has started to blossom and now they wanted to show their respect to her.”
Most of the students are Yup’ik Eskimo, some are from Bethel, others from nearby villages. Venessa Egoak is a 19-year-old from Bethel. She plans to shave her hair, going from about two feet in length to a quarter of an inch.
“I’d probably be supporting my two uncles who had cancer,” she says, choking up. “I do miss my uncles. I just wish cancer didn’t get them.”
After a long process of clipping, buzzing, and more buzzing, Egoak heads to the nearest mirror to check out her new look. She smiles at her reflection.
“Gonna get cold a lot,” she says laughing. “And I’m glad I did cut my hair.”
Victoria Passauer watches as a classmate gets her haircut and unconsciously runs her fingers through her long wavy auburn hair. She’s planning on donating about a foot of it for Locks of Love, which makes wigs for children. She’s supporting Sankwich and her mother who died from cancer about five years ago. She says she died in just a few months and was never able to go through treatment.
“So I never got to really, like, do that for her,” Passauer says, with tears in her eyes. “So…..I’m kind of doing it for her too.”
The ponytails are piling up on the table. Corp will mail them to a Locks of Love organization in Florida.
KLA student David Evon announces that he’s going to shave all his hair off. His black hair isn’t short for a guy. He hasn’t cut it in 11 months and it hangs down to his eyes.
“She was one of my favorite teachers here in KLA,” Evon says. “She was very helpful and kind and generous and I hope she gets better soon.”
A few hours later, Connie Sankwich sits on her couch under a blanket, looking at pictures of the school event. At 49, she’s lived a healthy lifestyle and never dreamed she’d get cancer.
“I cried like a baby when I had to cut my hair,” Sankwich says, laughing at the memory. “People would say things like ‘it’s just hair, hair’s over rated, it’ll grow back, you know. Of course, trying to make me feel better . . .it didn’t make me feel better. So. . . .to see the kids do this and to see all the staff and kids at KLA doing this. . .cutting their hair for me when they don’t have to. . .I just can’t believe the support that they’re giving.”
In the end, 25 students and staff cut their hair for Sankwich. She’ll carry their support with her in the coming months as she travels to Anchorage for chemotherapy.