Countless IBEW brothers and sisters regularly give their time and money to worthy causes. But few go to the lengths of some members of Baltimore Local 24, who volunteer each year to allow their hair to be publicly sheared off to raise money in the fight against childhood cancers.
“2021 is our 6th year as an IBEW team,” said Local 24 inside journeyman wireman James Chwirut, “and our team has grown through grassroots organizing in the local to raise over $30,000 in those years.”
The money raised goes to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a California-based charity dedicated to funding research into the causes of, and potential cures for, childhood cancers. The organization’s first head-shaving event, in 2000, was held in New York City on March 17 — St. Patrick’s Day. (Mash up “bald” and “St. Patrick” and you get the wholly fictitious “St. Baldrick.”)
Chwirut is the captain of the Charm City Wire Nuts, a group of IBEW members comprising Local 24’s St. Baldrick’s team. “Last year, before the pandemic, we had 24 members on our team and raised nearly $13,000,” Chwirut said. “It was our largest and most successful effort to date.”
The Charm City Wire Nuts — “Charm City” is one of Baltimore’s nicknames — participate along with several teams in the larger Baltimore Heroes event, which has been led since 2009 by volunteers from the Baltimore County Fire Department.
According to the foundation’s website, 73% of St. Baldrick’s fundraising goes to research to find a cure, 23% goes to fundraising, and the remainder pays for basic administration. The charity says that since 2005, it has awarded more than $305 million to support lifesaving research, pediatric cancer clinical trials and grants to train researchers outside the U.S.
“All of our fundraising culminates in having our heads shaved as a show of solidarity with the kids,” Chwirut said, many of whom lose their hair following chemotherapy treatments used to attack the cancer cells in their bodies.
Last year’s event in the Baltimore suburb of Rossdale took place about a week before the state of Maryland, as well as most of the rest of North America, began canceling large community gatherings in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“We raised enough money that Neil Wilford, head of Local 24’s Joint Apprenticeship and Training Center, joined the team and got shaved with us,” Chwirut said.
“At first, James approached me about making pitches to our apprentices,” Wilford said. And when Chwirut suggested that more apprentices might sign up to take part if Wilford did, too, the JATC director didn’t hesitate. “If it helps the cause, I’m in,” he said.
The easiest parts for Wilford were registering for the event and showing up. “James guided me along,” he said. “Once it came time, I went up on stage and they just took care of business.”
The day of the event typically is “controlled chaos,” Chwirut said, considering the number of volunteers and spectators on hand. A handful of barber chairs are set up on a stage, and then the hair cutters — workers from Sports Clips, a national St. Baldrick’s sponsor, as well as local barbers — get to work, quickly shearing the head of each fund raiser.
“You have hundreds of pairs of eyes staring up at you,” Chwirut said, “and you know you’re going to look weird for at least a week.”
It wasn’t a terribly dramatic experience for Wilford, though. “I’ve always kept my hair short,” he said. “Really, the biggest problem was that my head was cold.
“We saw a lot of the kids it benefits there,” he said, along with firefighters, police officers and members of other unions. “Everybody had a good time.”
Local 24 participants in this year’s
St. Baldrick’s event raised money
in memory of fellow member
Brandon Williams, who died last October.
For this year’s event, the Wire Nuts raised money in honor of Brandon Williams, a four-year inside journeyman wireman from Local 24 who died last October from injuries he sustained in a tragic tractor accident on his property in northern Baltimore County.
“Being bald to Brandon was a mark of pride and honor,” said Dan Berwanger, a fellow Baltimore Local 24 member and one of Williams’ best friends. “He loved wearing all of his St. Baldrick’s shirts every chance he got, and he tried to recruit people to the cause when they asked why he shaved.
“This cause, to him, was worth fighting for,” Berwanger said. “He took extreme pride and joy in knowing even if his efforts only helped one child, it was worth the cold head.”
Even though COVID-19 forced this year’s March 7 Baltimore Heroes event to be largely virtual, Chwirut and his Wire Nuts were able to secure an outdoor space to do some safe, in-person head shaving in the parking lot of Key Brewing Co. in nearby Dundalk. “It’s been harder to drum up support,” he admitted.
Even so, the Charm City Wire Nuts were the fundraising leaders for the Baltimore Heroes event, raising almost $9,000.
“These kinds of things are great for bringing the brotherhood together, and without regular in-person union meetings, that’s been a challenge,” said Local 24 Business Manager Peter Demchuk. “These days, anything that can get the members together safely is a good thing.”