By Sarah Hall
Morgan Road Elementary School Principal Brett Woodcock was not thrilled about the idea of shaving his head.
“I really don’t want to,” Woodcock admitted.
But Woodcock hadn’t pledged to go under the clippers on a dare or on a whim, but for a good cause: to raise money for St. Baldrick’s, the largest private funder of childhood cancer research grants.
So, on Friday, March 18, along with MRE fourth grade teacher Todd Francey and sixth-grader Nathan Graser, Woodcock had his head shaved — much to the delight of the school’s more than 400 students.
MRE second grade teacher Mark Herron organized the event in honor of Luke Ungerer. Luke’s father, Scott, is Herron’s childhood friend.
“I’ve been friends with Scott since we were in first grade,” Herron said. Scott Ungerer, a top athlete while at Westhill High School, went on to play basketball for the University of Richmond, as well as professional basketball in Europe.
In June of 2015, when he was just 3, Luke was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a kind of brain tumor that’s relatively common in adults but extremely rare in children. He endured surgery, followed by extensive radiation and chemotherapy, but he passed away on Jan. 14, 2016. Luke left behind his mother, Sheila, father, Scott, and brother, Will, along with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and many more family members and friends.
“We just wanted to do whatever Luke’s family wanted to do,” Herron said. “They had started a St. Baldrick’s page for him when he was diagnosed, and after he passed away, we decided to start a Syracuse chapter to support what they were doing.”
Luke’s Syracuse Army — which also includes former Colgate basketball star Pat Campolieta, former Le Moyne pitcher Joe Gehm and University of Pennsylvania football offensive coordinator John Reagan — has raised close to $40,000 so far. Of that, $1,880 came from Morgan Road. The team’s goal is $50,000. The group shaved April 10 at Kitty Hoynes, where the Syracuse St. Baldrick’s event — one of the largest in the country — is held every year.
“Organizations like St. Baldrick’s are really great, because they give as much as possible to research and to the kids that need it,” Herron said. “Very little goes into the overhead. Most of it goes to helping kids and into raising awareness.”
Originally, Herron said he approached Woodcock in hopes that he would join Luke’s Syracuse Army as a team member, raising money through St. Baldrick’s online platform and ultimately shaving his head on April 10.
But Woodcock had other ideas: he wanted to do an event at Morgan Road. The school has been working on a character education initiative called The Positivity Project all year; the program highlights 24 character traits that will prepare them for college and the workforce. In addition to raising more money for St. Baldrick’s, having an event for Luke’s Syracuse Army at MRE would highlight a number of those traits.
“As part of the Positivity Project, we talk a lot about kindness and helping others,” Woodcock said. “We talk about how money doesn’t make people happy unless you’re raising it for someone else. I’ve tried to drive that home. I don’t know how many of them get that as much as they’re excited to see me have my head shaved.”
Herron said The Positivity Project has proven to be a great vehicle through which to discuss a heavy topic with his young students.
“We’ve really focused on hope and optimism through the Positivity Project. Really, our hashtag is ‘other people matter,’ and we’re really demonstrating that here,” he said. “It’s really resonating with our students. They’re making posters. They’re talking about it in the halls.”
That idea that “other people matter” proved to be an inspiration to at least one student. Sixth-grader Nathan Graser was moved to participate in the shave by hearing Herron speak about his friend’s son.
“I obviously felt really bad for Luke and his family, but when I realized Luke was so important to Mr. Herron, I really wanted to do it for him,” Graser said. “It feels good. I would definitely do it again.”
Clearly, the event and the month-long lead-up to it has had the impact Woodcock had hoped it would—which is exactly the legacy Luke’s parents hope their little boy would leave behind.
“Be inspired by Luke’s life,” Sheila and Scott Ungerer wrote on their St. Baldrick’s fundraising page. “Be kind to one another and appreciate each and every day. Let the positive ripples that you can acquire from any of this spread far and wide. Honor Luke by brightening someone else’s day like he always did ours.”