What started as a friendly joke between teachers ended in a life-changing event on March 14 as sixth grade teacher Grace Dolente became the first woman to participate in Roland Rogers Elementary School's fourth annual St. Baldrick's Day event.

As the entire student population and staff observed, Dolente and eight other teachers at the Galloway Township school got their heads shaved for charity.

As in buzz-cut bald.

"My vanity was so worth it," said Dolente, 54, who raised more than $1,200 personally on her website in an effort to raise money and awareness for childhood cancer research.

Students in Dolente's class kicked in another $559.94 to see their teacher's hair disappear.

The school raised $10,139 for the St. Baldrick's Foundation during the event, and still counting, according to teacher Brian Dunn.

"This was better than I could have ever hoped," said Dunn, who has been organizing the event at the school since 2000 and was one of the shavees. "We flew past our goal. The response from the school community was incredible."

Dolente, a teacher in the school district for past 11 years and a Brigantine resident, said her decision was motivated by fellow teacher Don Adams, who regularly participates in the event. Adams jokingly told her students that Dolente was also shaving her head this year.

"The students thought he was serious and began hugging me and telling me how brave and wonderful I was," she explained. "It got me to seriously think that if all these children had such faith in me, I needed to rethink who I thought I was."

Once she realized that hair didn't define her as a person, she decided to join the eight other male teachers in the fundraising campaign. But she did set a price on her head.

"I told my students that if they raised $300 as a class I would do it. Well, they surpassed that. Next time, I won't lose my hair for so cheap," she teased.

Dunn, 33, is a fifth-grade teacher and has taught at the school for the past 10 years. His involvement in the St. Baldrick's Foundation began nine years ago through the Absecon Volunteer Fire Department in memory of Shelby Richter, a 13-year-old Absecon girl who died in 2005 of undifferentiated sarcoma.

The St. Baldrick's Foundation works closely with pediatric oncologists to determine the most promising research to fund and create funding priorities to make the greatest impact for children with cancer.

The highlight of this year's event was having seven families from throughout South Jersey who are affected by childhood cancer attend the event as guests, Dunn said.

"Seeing those families there today was a reminder to everyone why we do this," Dunn said.

Besides Dolente, Dunn and Adams, also getting their heads shaved for charity were Sean McCarthy, Joseph Conte, Joe Palumbo, David Martin, John McHale and Patrick Czar. Former assistant principal Michael Silvestri, now at the Middle School, was the surprise guest shavee.

Stylists from Tangles Beauty Studio in Galloway Township again volunteered their time and equipment for the event.

Last year alone, the St. Baldrick's Foundation raised over $22 million worldwide. Dunn said anyone wishing to still make donations to the St. Baldrick's Foundation should use this link: stbaldricks.org/events/rolandrogers.

Contact Lucia C. Drake: