Rockville Centre set for St. Patrick’s Parade, annual St. Baldrick’s fundraiser

The Uptown String Band added some color to the St. Patrick’s parade’s sea of green in 2017.
The Uptown String Band added some color to the St. Patrick’s parade’s sea of green in 2017.
Maureen Lennon/Herald

Rockville Centre’s St. Patrick’s Parade stepped off for the first time on March 22, 1997, and has since raised more than $1.2 million for 67 charities. The St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which raises money for pediatric cancer research through head shaving and ponytail chopping, has collected more than $4 million over the past 16 years at its Rockville Centre event alone.

Thousands are expected at this year’s parade, which will begin at noon on Saturday at the corner of North Long Beach Road and Maple Avenue, march past Village Hall and end near the Long Island Rail Road station. A Mass at St. Agnes Cathedral will be held before the parade at 9 a.m. Afterward, from 1 to 5 p.m., St. Baldrick’s will host its annual head-shaving event at the St. Agnes Parish Center.

“It’s nice that we kind of start right when they end,” said John Bender, a 1983 graduate of St. Agnes Cathedral High School and a 20-year Rockville Centre resident who helped start the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. “. . . It’s become a beautiful family relationship between the parade group and the St. Baldrick’s group.”

In fact, Bender added, the St. Patrick’s Parade donated money to the foundation in 2007. Each year the parade committee selects a local, national and Irish charity to benefit, and funds are raised at a variety of events in the months leading up to the parade. This year, donations will be given to the Opening Word, a group that provides literacy, English as a Second Language and job-readiness programs to immigrant women on Long Island; the HEARTest Yard, a North Carolina-based charity that helps babies afflicted with hypoplastic left heart syndrome; and the New York Irish Center, a community center in Long Island City founded in 2005, which offers social and cultural services to Irish immigrants in the tristate area.

“It’s the only parade that cares and shares as far as I know in the United States,” said Mayor Francis X. Murray. “It’s just a fantastic venue in Rockville Centre.”

And when the parade ends, the giving doesn’t stop, as many head over to the annual St. Baldrick’s event. It started in 1999, when Tim Kenny, a colleague of Bender’s, wondered how he and others who have had good fortune in business could give back. Bender recalled the hair of their friend, Enda McDonnell, which he likened to that of members of the 1980s synth-pop band A Flock of Seagulls.

“I threw out basically, ‘Hey, why don’t we shave Enda’s hair in solidarity with the kids who lose their hair when they get chemo?’” Bender recounted. “He said, ‘I will if you will.’ That’s kind of how it was born.”

The first event, at a St. Patrick’s work party in Manhattan the following year, resulted in 19 bald heads and $104,000 in donations to combat pediatric cancer. “We knew we were on to something and couldn’t walk away,” Bender said. “We moved on to Year Two.”

In 2005, the St. Baldrick’s Foundation officially became a nonprofit charity. The head-shaving fundraiser later moved to Rockville Centre bars, and has been at the St. Agnes Parish Center for over a decade. It is one of many held throughout the country under the St. Baldrick’s name — a mashup of St. Patrick’s Day and “bald,” which sum up the foundation’s beginnings. The foundation, in total, has funded $258 million in research grants to 374 institutions in 29 countries.

At last year’s Rockville Centre event, more than 200 shavees and ponytail donators helped raise about $450,000. Event organizers Alanna Bender, John LaCava and Dan Schaefer are hopeful the foundation will reach those numbers again this year. As of a week before the fundraiser, about 100 people had signed up to shave or chop their hair for the cause.

The event will remember Rockville Centre children who died of cancer over the last year, including 5-year-old Gabriella O. Pellicani, a former student at St. Mark’s Cooperative Nursery School, and Mary Ruchalski, a sixth-grader at St. Agnes Cathedral School who died last March, two days before her 13th birthday.

Also to be honored is Murray’s niece, Kimiko Schroder, 12, of San Diego, who died in January after an eight-year battle with neuroblastoma. Murray noted that St. Baldrick’s funded a trial of immunotherapy for her — a relatively new treatment that uses a patient’s own immune system to destroy cancer cells — and though it couldn’t save her, “it’ll save others,” he said.

“Not only are we looking to find a cure for every cancer,” Bender said. “We’re looking to find a more humane treatment that doesn’t leave these children with side-effects into their adult lives.”

Murray and Bender, who is set to shave his head for the 22nd time, will be marching with their families and friends, they said.

“The parade that cares and shares has been the most awesome welcoming,” Bender noted, “because they were here before we were, and they welcomed us into the community with open arms.”

Molloy College President Drew Bogner (see sidebar), who will lead all parade participants as this year’s grand marsal, added, “We take great pride in coming together as a community to do really good work.”