Keith Fraser shaves Caitlin McLaughlin's head March 5 at Shaeffer's Chapel United Methodist Church in Lowndes County. His wife, Meredith Fraser, looks on and later took a turn. Caitlin, a senior at New Hope High School, pledged to shave her head if she was able to raise at least $1,500 for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. The Frasers' grandson, 4-year-old Mason Saxon of Starkville, is receiving treatment at St. Jude in Memphis, Tennessee. Shaeffer's Chapel members Heather and Kenneth Brewer also have a child at St. Jude, 9-month-old Kensley. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
Caitlin, sans hair, after keeping her pledge March 5. Caitlin is the daughter of Cynthia and Skip McLaughlin of Columbus.
Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
This photo of Caitlin McLaughlin posted on social media March 6 was captioned, "Perhaps this is the moment for which you have been created." Esther 4:14.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
March 11, 2017 10:13:16 PM
Odds of a 17-year-old girl voluntarily shaving her head five days before her senior prom are slim to none, more none than slim. So when Caitlin McLaughlin let her brunette locks be shorn Sunday morning a week ago, it was an act of deep conviction. It happened at her church, Shaeffer's Chapel United Methodist Church in Lowndes County -- and Caitlin doesn't regret it a bit.
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, has been much on the New Hope student's mind lately. Memories of a mission trip there several years ago remain fresh. Caitlin has made donations to the hospital since, but recently felt moved to do something on a bigger scale. Late last fall, she approached her pastor, Curtis Bray, with an idea. The teen set a goal of raising $1,500 for the hospital and pledged to "go bald" when the target was reached. She did not know then that, very shortly, two children from her church family would be in urgent need of treatment at St. Jude.
In January, Kensley Brewer, now 9 months old, was diagnosed with grade 3 anaplastic astrocytoma brain cancer. Four-year-old Mason Saxon received a diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Kensley's parents, Heather and Kenneth Brewer, and Mason's grandparents, Meredith and Keith Fraser, attend Shaeffer's Chapel. Mason's parents are Catherine and Donald Saxon of Starkville. These children's plight made Caitlin even more committed to the cause.
Her parents, Cynthia and Skip McLaughlin, may have been skeptical at first about their daughter shaving her head before prom, senior pictures, parties and graduation.
"But she's very compassionate and has been talking about it for a long time," says Skip. "After a month or so, I realized she was really serious about it."
The church congregation was a major force in raising more than $1,600; the fund is still growing. While the contributions are vital -- St. Jude never sends a bill to patients -- Caitlin's mission is also to increase awareness about childhood cancer. She's inspired by the visit she once made to volunteer at Ronald McDonald House at St. Jude with a former church group. Ronald McDonald House provides accommodations and support for families to be near their children during hospital stays.
"It changed me," Caitlin says. "I ended up playing Legos and blocks with this little 5-year-old boy who was sick. He asked me if I'd help him build a castle. We were just playing, and he said, 'I know I'm gonna see you in heaven one day.'"
She gets chills remembering.
"I was just about to turn 13, only in middle school, and I didn't know how to react ... it was really heart-touching," she recalls. "All the families were so strong. It was so sad and so beautiful at the same time."
Caitlin is convinced, in fact, that it was the first time she truly felt the presence of God.
Honoring a promise
On the eve of her makeover, the teenager was a bundle of nerves, didn't sleep a wink. The following morning her heart was pounding. Accustomed to performing on stage with show choir, Caitlin had always paid great attention to her hair, and she was about to lose it.
"I always hid behind my hair. I took my hair so seriously," she says. But when the first locks fell, she felt a sense of great relief.
"It's hard to explain. I feel so much better about life," she shares. "It was a big moment in my life and always will be."
Keith and Meredith Fraser, Mason's grandparents, were on hand to wield the clippers first.
"We were thrilled to be asked to do it," Meredith says. "It's admirable what Caitlin has done at this time of her life when most girls would be thinking about what they're going to wear to prom and how their hair will look."
Meredith is a long-time volunteer with Camp Rising Sun, an annual camp in Columbus for children who have received a cancer diagnosis.
"But never did I think we would be on the other side," she says. Her volunteer work may have helped prepare her in some ways for what her grandson is going through.
Kensley's parents were at St. Jude when Caitlin had her head shaved, but they watched the video afterward. By phone from the hospital Tuesday, Kensley's mom, Heather, talked of how touched the family is, not only on behalf of Kensley, but also for so many other children being treated. She was at first concerned about how classmates would respond to Caitlin going bald.
"But she didn't care; that's just the type of person she is."
On the teen's Facebook page, Heather wrote, "A lot of people may not understand why you have chosen to do this, but I do and stand behind you 100 percent ... "
Caitlin says her life has changed in the past week. She never expected the shave to stir up so much interest. Several thousand people have viewed the video on her Facebook page, and she was invited to help kick off a Relay for Life campaign Thursday at New Hope Middle School. The senior is appreciative of everyone who has helped, and she is brainstorming to raise more. She doesn't want to stop.
"Her commitment to helping others is an extension of her Christian love for all and serves as a great example to others," says pastor Curtis Bray.
Yes, it took a little courage to walk the halls at school the day after her head was shaved, to face her peers. Some told Caitlin she was a hero.
"Honestly, the kids at St. Jude are my heroes," she says. "I feel like God sometimes calls us to do crazy things, such as shaving your head ... but those children don't deserve to fight through this alone."
How to help
■ To contribute to the fund being collected for St. Jude at Shaeffer's Chapel, send checks made out to Shaeffer's Chapel UM Church and designated for St. Jude to the church at P.O. Box 863, Columbus, MS 39703.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.