PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Thirteen years ago during the first ever Planet Head Day friends and colleagues Kevin McCartney and Jeanie McGowan set up chairs in the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s geology lab and collected $200 in a pickle jar to present to the nonprofit Caring Area Neighbors for Cancer Education and Recovery, also known as C-A-N-C-E-R.
Since then the fundraiser has outgrown that small space and is now held at UMPI’s Wieden Auditorium, with hundreds of community members raising thousands of dollars for C-A-N-C-E-R. This year’s Planet Head Day took place Saturday, March 16, and organizers set a goal of topping their 2018 fundraising total of $11,000.
The concept is simple: Folks choose to either have their head shaven or don a bald cap so that volunteers can paint the image of a planet on their head. Each “planet head” is in honor of cancer patients who have lost their own hair while undergoing treatments.
But the impact of Planet Head Day has spanned further than the event itself. For 20 years C-A-N-C-E-R has provided funds to help cancer patients and their families with costs related to travel and other expenses as well as any service that other agencies might not cover.
“Our services are not income-based and there’s no sign-up sheet because we feel that anyone who’s diagnosed with cancer needs someone to talk to them and let them know that someone cares,” said Susan Black, secretary for C-A-N-C-E-R.
Planet Head Day began in 2006 when the Northern Maine Museum of Science, located at UMPI, received a grant from NASA to support local astronomy education. McGowen, former coordinator of collections for the museum, had connected with C-A-N-C-E-R during her own illness. She suggested to McCartney, museum director and UMPI professor of geology, that she paint her head to look like Jupiter to teach children about the solar system.
McGowen lost her battle with breast cancer in 2016. But McCartney has continued to build upon the success of Planet Head Day and include people not just from the local community but across the world. While serving as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Szczecin in Poland in 2017, McCartney had his head shaved in honor of the Planet Head Day taking place in Maine and, to his surprise, 50 people showed up to watch. News of his endeavor had spread through word of mouth.
One year later McCartney helped to organize a Planet Head Day at the University of Szczecin that took place simultaneously with the event in Presque Isle. The Poland event gained national publicity, with McCartney having his head shaved alongside the president of Szczecin — Poland’s equivalent of a state governor — and many Polish celebrities joined in. Funds from the Poland Planet Head Day went toward the children’s hospital in Szczecin.
McCartney returned to Poland for this year’s Planet Head Day and both events were livestreamed so that people from both countries could see the impact that their efforts were having on people around the world.
“This year my head is dedicated to Margaret Wright, a Northern Maine Fair volunteer who recently passed away from cancer,” McCartney said, prior to this year’s Planet Head Day festivities. “There is no question that we have changed and improved many lives in Maine and in Poland.”
Although many people who become “planet heads” do so to honor the memory of a loved one who has lost their battle with cancer or a cancer survivor, others simply use the occasion to contribute to the cause and hopefully make a difference.
“I come here every year because it’s a great cause and I want to help people,” said Lisa Jones, of Presque Isle, who opted for a bald cap to have her head was painted as Mars.
Nore Hammudeh, a student at Loring Job Corps Center in Limestone, said that she saw Planet Head Day as a way to contribute to the local community.
“I don’t know anyone who has been affected by cancer, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to help,” said Hammudeh, who had her head shaved and painted as Venus. “I hope I’ve been able to put a smile on peoples’ faces.”
This year Planet Head Day is well on its way to achieving the $15,000 fundraising goal, according to Presque Isle Rotary Club member Brett Varnum. The Rotary Club has been involved with Planet Head Day since the beginning but 2019 marks the first year they’ve been an official sponsor. Their assistance has allowed preliminary donations to come from UMPI, Northern Maine Community College, Graves Shop & Save, Northern Light A.R. Gould Hospital and MMG Insurance, which contributed $1,000 each.
Many Rotarians and individual community members also pledged donations of $100 or more prior to Planet Head Day. The fundraising total from donations and the event itself will be announced at a later date.
“Planet Head Day fits with the Rotary’s mission of building stronger communities and helping people locally and across the globe,” Varnum said.