Photography by Joel Benjamin
The thought of being bald, even for a day, can be a bit scary for most. For others it’s a bold and beautiful act of courage. On October 17th, Southie resident Jen O’Neill will don a bald cap to honor those who have battled cancer as part of the Be Bold, Be Bald campaign. The funds she raises will go to the Joe Andruzzi Foundation, (Up)Beat Cancer that supports and assists families living with cancer diagnoses and treatment plans.
After a friend of 22 years, Jen Yong, was diagnosed with the BRCA2 gene and breast cancer at age 31, Jen was inspired by her friend’s journey. She watched the very painful and prolonged process of chemo, surgeries, radiation, a double mastectomy, and reconstruction but one of toughest side effects for Yong was the loss of her hair. “The biggest factor for her psychological well-being was the loss and regrowth of her hair. Even losing breast tissue didn’t seem to assault her sense of femininity as much as losing her hair. Jen had some fantastic wigs, but the state of her hair affected the image she was able to present to society – confident or not-so-confident. I want to honor brave people who lose their hair, show solidarity that bald can be incredibly beautiful, and raise money for the Joe Andruzzi Foundation. Joe and Jen Andruzzi are angels on earth,” says Jen.
Since 2009, Jen wakes up on the third Friday of October, puts on her bald cap and goes about her day. “I started wearing the bald cap to honor my Grandma Bea’s battle with ovarian cancer.”
Scoop on Jen:
- Born and bred in South Boston
- Grew up on Vinton Street – her family has owned the house on Vinton Street since 1953
- Went to Paul A. Dever elementary school and the John W. McCormack middle school for one year.
- Graduated from Boston Latin School
- Graduated from Boston University
- Works at Meditech as a marketing consultant. “I just started a job at Meditech as a Marketing Consultant – literally a week-and-a-half ago. Meditech has a wonderful mission to provide software tools for excellent and efficient patient care through electronic systems. Before that, I worked for the Museum of Science in various capacities – most recently as the Program Manager of Special Events – for 17 years. As you can tell from my work and residence records, I am a creature of habit. “
- Favorite thing about living in Southie? My favorite logistical thing about living in Southie is its proximity to so many areas and transportation methods. Southie really is situated in a perfect Boston crossroads. My favorite philosophical thing about living in Southie is the fact that I am a “born and bred” and have the perspective of watching the neighborhood develop into the “it place” – not just for the city, but globally in some cases. Who would have ever thought 30-years-ago (“Cheers” notwithstanding) that the Boston accent would be considered something charming enough to mimic and that the South Boston mobsters would be the fodder for top-grossing cinema? Don’t get me wrong, there are challenges with preserving local culture and flavor and certainly PARKING, but to think that a place that was once considered “low brow” by some is now THE destination is mind-boggling.
- Favorite spot in Southie? My favorite spot in Southie, hands down, is Castle Island. Even crammed with fair-weather “summers,” it is such a city oasis. Also, to think that the earliest Americans inhabiting the area caused the British to abandon the original site of Fort Independence soon after the fortification of Dorchester Heights in 1776 – one of the first statements of early American resolve – is almost metaphoric. Boston, especially South Boston, is a proud, revolutionary place.
Be Bold, Be Bald! was created by Small Army for a Cause, a 501c3 organization founded by members of Boston-based advertising agency Small Army in honor of Mike Connell, the agency’s co-founder and former Creative Principal who lost his battle with cancer in 2007. In 2009, Be Bold, Be Bald was founded. This annual event invites any and all to put their hair on the line for a day to raise money and awareness for the fight against cancer. For Jen, it’s a way show oneness with cancer survivors who have lost their hair during their fight against this terrible disease. It’s for her friend Jen Yong and for Grandma Bea.
Were you close to your grandmother?
I was very close with both grandmothers but extremely close with my maternal grandmother – “Grandma Bea.” When my father passed away, she helped to raise me with my Mother. In fact, my mother was the disciplinarian, and my grandmother was the one who bought my favorite cookies, let me play a few extra minutes on the stoop with my friends, and convinced my mother that a C+ on one spelling test was not a capital offense. Grandma Bea moved to South Boston during WWII while my Grandfather was in Europe for 5 years. She was a very active member of St. Monica parish for her entire South Bostonian residency. She lived the last 2 years of her life at Marion Manor.
Can you tell me any favorite childhood memories about South Boston.
My favorite childhood memories in South Boston mainly centered around then Columbus Park – now Moakley Park. It was literally just beyond the rotary at the end of my street, and I spent most summer nights riding my bike around the grounds and cavorting in the playgrounds with friends. Depending on the stages of renovation, one playground was always better than the other – new swings, steeper slides, loopier jungle gyms, etc. I had so much fun at the park as a kid.
You have been participating in Be Bold, Be Bald since 2009, what is that experience like?
It’s amazing how wearing a bald cap – as opposed to other very worthwhile charitable activities like runs, walks, bake sales, etc. – connects someone with the condition/cause s/he is trying to support. People who lose their hair to cancer are often subject to stares and questioning. People who wear bald caps for a day are definitely subject to stares and questioning, but that is the point of the effort.
Each time I have removed a bald cap at the end of the day – and I am also wearing a shirt and a button identifying my cause and reason for looking different that day – I imagine what six months+ of that type of day would be. I imagine the bravery it takes not only to fight a disease that is trying to overtake your body but also to venture out into the world having to answer questions about the struggle. People are usually kind while I wear the cap, but they are definitely inquisitive, which can take its toll when it is an all-day process.
I also “sell” signatures for $10, so it’s great to read tributes that people will write on my head. My only rule is to keep it clean! I have to go to work.
The coolest part also has to be recognition from Twitter personalities. The folks at Be Bold, Be Bald encourage us to market our efforts, so I tweet high and wide. As a lifelong Patriots fan, responses from Randy Moss have made my day two years in a row.
How can people donate to the cause?
Thanks for asking! Anyone who is interested in contributing or learning more about the cause can visit: http://beboldbebald.org/jenvegas (Vegas is a longtime inside joke nickname relating to the show “Friends.”)
Anything else you’d like to share?
I’m humbled by any and all support – from donations to prayers and encouragement – and I believe that one day we will eliminate the pain of the various cancer pathologies. Survivors are some of the bravest people I know.
So if you see Jen O’Neill on October 17th, make sure to show your support. She is doing a brave thing – being bold and being bald.
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