By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter
On October 20, Medfield TV hosted a virtual fundraiser for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a childhood cancer charity that funds pediatric cancer research and pays for people to become pediatric oncologists (who specialize in the unique ways cancer affects children and study the treatments that must be tailored to them). Led by Medfield TV General Manager Brett Poirier, the fundraiser was vital at a time when St. Baldrick’s is really struggling.
One of the problems St. Baldrick’s is dealing with is, ironically, one of the things that makes the charity so appealing and effective. Unlike many charities, St. Baldrick’s is very transparent with their administrative costs, which amounts to an extremely low three percent. The advantage of this is that the vast majority of the money you donate goes to fund childhood cancer research rather than employee salaries. The disadvantage is that with so few employees, they are incredibly volunteer-dependent. In the era of COVID-19, with volunteers increasingly opting not to hold events, this system has become a huge problem.
Poirier has been doing St. Baldrick’s events since 2008, achieving the rank of "Knight of the Bald Table" - though he is only one event away from becoming a “Knight Commander.” As he explained, his love of the charity all started when his wrestling team wanted to get rid of their bleached blonde hair.
“The wrestling team in high school used to bleach our hair, and so we needed a reason to shave our heads. One of my buddies said, ‘Hey, I do this children’s cancer fundraiser where we shave our heads and raise money for kid’s cancer, do you want to join?’ and I said ‘sure.’ I showed up and there was this second-grader named CJ, and I realized my friend Ryan had been putting on this event specifically for CJ. CJ’s entire second grade class showed up at the event and all shaved their heads so that when CJ ended up going through chemo and lost his hair, his entire class was bald with him. I can’t tell you something more powerful than that, watching a parade of kid after kid fist-bump their buddy and then all shave their heads. I’m talking boys, girls, everybody - and it just clicked with me, that’s why you do this. That’s why this event is so powerful. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
After hosting some events at the colleges he attended, Poirier began doing the events with Medfield TV in 2018. Those events were always in-person, which while far easier to raise money doing, are obviously horrible for social distancing.
“The way it’s supposed to work is we had two barbers here on site at Medfield TV, and we had twelve people signed up to be shavees. What ends up happening is they all show up on the same day and we shave our heads. We had music playing, we had an auction going, we had all sorts of stuff going on to help raise money. Medfield TV does an art show and the artist that was there heard about the children’s cancer event and pitched any sales she made that night; she would give a certain percentage to the cause. When you’re live in person, there are so many things you can do to help raise money for the cause. It’s a big event, it’s a celebration, it’s a party, everyone’s having fun and throwing money around, and it’s fun. But this became a challenge. Events are these big gatherings, which is obviously the most anti-COVID thing that can happen.”
This year, Poirier had decided not to do a St. Baldricks’ event, figuring they would try and wait out COVID-19. But when he talked to some St. Baldrick’s staffers, he realized everyone else was doing the same thing, and that as a result, the money coming into the charity was much less than usual. The organization had lost over $12m this year, which spurred Poirier to put on a virtual event.
“As soon as we realized COVID was happening, I said ‘Oh well, we’re not going to do it.’ But when I called them and they said they had lost 12.8 million dollars because people had made the exact same assumption I did. And so this year - Dr. Susan Cohn talks about it on the broadcast - they’re not going to be able to fund some of the fellowships. They’re not going to be able to fund as many grants this year because COVID cancelled a lot of the events and people didn’t do virtual ones to replace it. I knew I had to do it, and that I couldn’t wait; I had to jump on it and get it done.”
In the COVID era, St. Baldrick’s volunteers were, in essence, running Zoom meetings in which people shaved their head. Poirier knew that wasn’t working, and wasn’t going to work, so he sought to use the capabilities of having his own TV studio at his disposal to make his virtual event something more. Poirier expanded his event to include interviews with St. Baldrick’s board members and cancer survivors, as well as live head-shavings from across the country.
While many charity fundraisers don’t give a great sense of where the money is going beyond some stock images of people in lab coats loading beakers into a centrifuge, Poirier’s was different. One of the people he interviewed acted as a living testament to the power of St. Baldrick’s, because the treatment developed through the funding by St. Baldrick’s actually saved his life.
“They wanted me to do a Zoom meeting, but I knew that wasn’t going to go over well, so I did the interviews with Dr. Susan Cohn, a board member for St Baldrick’s, that was an awesome interview. I had Micah Bernstein, he was an awesome interview. He’s a little boy who had cancer, but he now has no existence of the cancer in his body right now. The coolest part about Micah is that the medication he took that saved his life was directly funded by St Baldrick’s.”
While money is still coming in, and can still be donated, at a time of record unemployment in America, Poirier managed to hit an all-time high for Medfield TV: over ten thousand dollars raised for the organization.
“Our first year we did it here was 2018, and we raised $7,048. The next year we did a little over $2,000 - it wasn’t a great year - and this year, we’re going to do about $10,000. That’s a first for me; it’s by far the most we’ve ever raised, and it’s a point of pride for me. I can’t believe an event I put together is going to raise 10,000 for children’s cancer. It’s pretty awesome.”
While he acknowledged not everyone has a TV studio at their disposal, Poirier said that some of the St. Baldrick’s people believed his fundraiser was so successful, they think he should do it the same way every year - whether COVID is still around or not - and that they may even have Poirier come in and show them how he did it.
But if you’d like to make it even more of a success, Poirier noted you can still donate at stbaldricks.org/events/medfieldtv2020.
As for Medfield TV’s next move, Poirier was busy crafting props for their haunted house this year, leaving the studio to look like “Geppetto’s workshop.” After last year’s haunted house was a huge success, attracting eighty people, Poirier didn’t want to risk trying to socially distance that many people. But an appearance on the Small Town Scuttlebutt podcast gave him an idea for a new way of scaring people.
“We were thinking of how we could do it, whether we could keep people socially distanced, and I said ‘Yeah, we could, but why are we going to risk that?’ Then I went on Small Town Scuttlebutt and Rick [Fink] brought up as a joke, why not do it at the Medfield State Hospital? And it kind of stuck in my head until I was finally like, ‘Why don’t we?’ I think it was the Medfield theater head, Andrea McCoy, who told me 'people are doing a drive-through haunted house, you should do that,' so we threw all those ideas in a box to see what we could come up with. It’s us and the library are putting together this haunted house; it’s a huge endeavor. It’s a lot, but we’re building a bunch of props. Medfield TV looks like Geppetto’s workshop right now, but we’re building and creating and hoping to put on a great show.”