Cancer Fundraiser Brandi Smigiel

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East Islip High School student Brandi Smigiel did more than just shave her head last month. Through her hard work as lead organizer of the school’s St. Baldrick’s Foundation event, the creative, self-effacing junior raised $2,480 to help fund childhood cancer research, earning praise and respect from school administrators, teachers and the entire East Islip community.

She cited teacher Shannon Behrhof and Smigiel’s mother – a two-time cancer survivor she calls “the strongest woman I know” – as her inspirations. At age 23, her mother was first diagnosed with lymphoma, undergoing a tough nine months of chemotherapy. A year later she had her first child, Smigiel’s brother, but then a few months later she discovered the cancer had returned. Two more months of chemo and a bone marrow transplant finally put the disease in remission, and she gave birth to Brandi 17 years ago, making Smigiel’s work for St. Baldrick’s all the more meaningful. “My mom was really proud, and that made me feel fantastic,” she said.

After Smigiel’s idea for the St. Baldrick’s event at East Islip picked up steam, the school’s National Honor Society got involved as a sponsor. “They picked it up and really had the organization to help,” Smigiel said, but nobody foresaw just how much attention it would receive or the outpouring of generous donations from friends, family and classmates. “I wasn’t expecting to raise that much,” she admitted. “I was quite overwhelmed.” A YouTube video about her St. Baldrick’s experience, “The Story Behind the Hair,” has been viewed over 4,000 times.

Smigiel, a writer for the school’s “Epiphany” literary magazine, has involved herself in a variety of other extracurricular activities through the years, from the bowling team and video club to the stage crew for the school musical. None of it prepared her for actually sitting in the barber’s chair losing her rainbow locks, dyed in preparation for the shaving. “It was all talk up to that point,” she said. While her hair has since grown in a little, at first she would catch her reflection in a mirror and be surprised. As for next year? “I would love to continue to organize for St. Baldrick’s,” Smigiel said, “but not shave again!”