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Go Shave! Hannah’s Hero

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Gaylene Meeson has been shaving her head every September for nine years to raise funds for childhood cancer research – and her recent return to the UK won’t change that. Elizabeth Kerr reports

It’s 9am in England, where Gaylene Meeson, her husband Nigel and their daughter Hannah are living these days – and Gaylene is in fine fettle. “I love the fresh air and the long summer evenings here in Somerset,” she says. “I love being able to catch up with family and friends. I am loving living in a house with spare rooms and a big back garden. And I love grocery shopping in Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, and it not costing an arm and a leg!”

And after six years in DB, what does Gaylene miss? “I miss my weekly watercolour and oil painting classes with Yulia Shautsukova. I miss the wonderful friends I left behind. I miss the DB guiding, especially Brownie pack B girls, their wonderful parents and the other guide leaders. And I miss catching the ferry into Central.

“Hong Kong is just too expensive if you’re retired,” Gaylene adds, “but we’ll be back holidaying and using it as a stopover when in Asia to see friends.” Relocation is never easy but it’s particularly challenging if you have a child with disabilities, which 13-year-old Hannah does after aggressive chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy to combat brain cancer diagnosed in 2012.

THE MEESONS IN DB EARLIER THIS YEAR
THE MEESONS IN DB EARLIER THIS YEAR

SIX YEARS IN DB

Gaylene and her family arrived in Hong Kong in 2015 after a stint in the Cayman Islands, settling on DB following an accessibility scouting trip. They needed step-free entrances and easily navigable pavements, plus easy connection to the rest of the city.

“Everywhere we looked had pros and cons but DB ticked the boxes,” recalls Gaylene, adding that proximity to HKILA, the DB international school which provides inclusionary, ‘stage-not-age’ education, was the clincher. “It truly is the most wonderful school, headed up by Justine Barlow who treats education as a journey not as a destination. Every child is taught at a pace that encourages them to thrive, to develop a love of learning and curiosity beyond the walls of the classroom.”

HKILA and the relative ease of getting around made DB nearly ideal. Nearly. Gaylene’s direct, clearly not one to suffer fools, but she’s also got a wry streak she could wield like a scalpel to make a point, especially when relaying stories about escalator barriers to prevent the earth shattering removal of shopping trolleys from shops, or the lack of ramp access because of the potential tragedy of skateboarders swiping them. Needless to say, Gaylene is an advocate for childhood cancer but she’s also for accessibility for those with disabilities.

FILLING THE FUNDING GAP
By the time they arrived in the SAR, Gaylene had become far more vocal about what Hannah, and people like her, needed. After almost completing a course of treatment, Hannah relapsed in 2013. “I can’t describe how desperate and devastating it was,” says Gaylene. The Meesons were shuttling back and forth from the Caymans to Houston’s MD Anderson cancer hospital, and the world’s best doctors handed them some new drugs and a paper about a European trial. “I said, ‘Is that the best there is?’ and the doctor said yes. I had no idea there was so little research for children’s cancer. That was the defining moment when I decided I had to do something, because doing nothing was not an option.”

That’s when Gaylene found St Baldrick’s Foundation, the world’s largest non-governmental research funder, and its programme that encourages volunteers to shave off their hair in solidarity with those fighting cancer. Without the foundation quite being on board (yet) Gaylene and some friends – one fortuitously, a hairdresser – hosted a fundraiser to kick off Hannah’s Heroes. With just 35 people, some music and a silent auction Gaylene raised US$90,000 – and got St Baldrick’s attention. Gaylene is one of the foundation’s most effective advocates, having raised over US$2.5 million since 2013 (check out the Hero Fund list at www.stbaldricks.org).

Shave proceeds in Hong Kong go to St Baldrick’s though local partner Children’s Cancer Foundation

GAYLENE WITH HANNAH AT HER VIRTUAL HEAD SHAVE EVENT IN 2020
GAYLENE WITH HANNAH AT HER VIRTUAL HEAD SHAVE EVENT IN 2020

Gaylene’s comment about underfunding is an understatement. Half of the treatments in use today were approved in the mid-1980s, leaving children and their doctors to battle cancers using 35-year old tools. According to the US National Institutes of Health, none of the National Cancer Institute 2018 budget of US$5.9 billion was earmarked for juvenile cancers, though the Minnesota-based Children’s Cancer Research Fund (and others) claim the figure is just 4% of that federal funding – or US$236 million. The figures are similar in the UK and Australia (Gaylene says it’s roughly 1% in those locations) and is near zero in Hong Kong. For the record, the proposed Department of Defence budget for 2020 was US$718.3 billion.

“Children aren’t valued, so what’s left is families selling lemonade and shaving their heads,” Gaylene laments. “Because, I guess, children don’t vote.

THE LEGACY

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and the legacy of Hannah’s Heroes in DB lives on. During her six-year sojourn, Gaylene also helped set up the Brownies and inspired several of her charges to shave their heads and donate their hair. “The disabled are hesitant to advocate for themselves, or make a fuss. Which is why I got into Girl Guides, because it’s an inclusive organisation,” explains Gaylene. “Disabled kids are still routinely excluded, but in a structured guide unit they have to take care of each other in their Sixes.”

“Brownies learn empathy, about working in the community and about how others are less fortunate than they are,” continues Gaylene. “I’m passionate about inspiring people to join me and do something. Anything. If it’s not cancer research find something, and make the communities we live in better.” In pandemic-stricken 2020, Hannah’s Heroes managed to raise an impressive US$80,000 during a virtual event, an all-time low, but Gaylene was happy to spread awareness, which is always the goal. “If you don’t know, you can’t help,” she states, noting that COVID has done a great deal to insert our collective health and community into the conversation. Besides, US$80,000 is nothing to sniff at.

“Every dollar is one more dollar than we had,” Gaylene says of a year when we were all worrying about jobs and security. Last year was about compassion, and it seems this one is too, if the outpouring of support for HK Dragons coach Christian Romano in his own cancer fight is any indication. The community fundraiser for Christian on August 28 saw an all-day market at DB North Pitch and a concert at Hemingway’s – plus another successful blood and bone marrow donation drive organised by Ada Wong and Tanya Inkin.

Gaylene’s autumn, meanwhile, will revolve around settling into Somerset, sorting out the house and camping with Hannah’s new Guides unit. The Meesons haven’t lived in England for 15 years, so all three will be finding their feet. One thing that’s not changing is Hannah’s schooling; she’s continuing at HKILA by remote.

“Don’t get me started on education,” huffs Gaylene, arguing any UK school Hannah enrols in would place her with 13-year-olds despite her radiation therapy impacted development. “She’d be in learning support all day and then all alone in the playground because kids generally don’t reach out to other kids who are different. Empathy… has to be taught. Social time at school is a myth if you’re disabled. I don’t want to put her through that.”

Come late September Gaylene will be buzzing off her hair, and for the first time she’ll be doing it away from the warmth of the Caymans or Hong Kong, supporting the kids without the luxury of choice in mind. “I’ll just be cold,” she finishes. “And it’s just hair.”

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