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Student is abuzz with altruism


IT SAYS A LOT about Phoebe Willis that she isn’t fretting a second over the impending loss of her long auburn locks. 

 Not if it can help her raise $25,000 for childhood cancer research.

  The fourth-year University of Virginia student and Fredericksburg native said the thought of seeing her bald in college graduation pictures gave a few relatives pause.

But “I like to think years from now I’ll look at those pictures and remember that I did something in my last year of college to help fight childhood cancer.”

  On March 21, the four-year U.Va. field hockey player  will join handfuls of other students getting heads shaved smooth as part of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation effort to raise money to fight childhood cancer.

  Don’t bet against the determined 22-year-old reaching her goal. Willis, the daughter of Judge Gordon Willis and attorney Tory Willis of the city, has already taken in $6,000 in donations for her promise to shave her head.

  Not only has she reached out to classmates, friends, family members and local businesses, she has even traveled to a hospital in Richmond to meet with a young cancer patient.

  “I got a contribution from Travis Compher, a 12-year-old from Caroline County who’s been in treatment for leukemia,” said Willis. That led to a visit with Travis, who was undergoing hospital treatments.

  “He was such an inspiring young man, so positive despite what he’s going through,” said Willis, who said the visit and the loss of an uncle to cancer have given her fundraising efforts more urgency.

“I can’t imagine being that age and dealing with what he and other children with cancer have to cope with.”

  Willis, who suffered less life-threatening  but still frustrating adversity last year when she broke her foot and missed the whole field hockey season, said she first heard about the St. Baldrick’s fundraiser from a friend in a religious studies class during her freshman year.

  The idea bounced around that soon-to-be-bare noggin for a few years until she decided it was something she could and should do.

  The history major with a  minor in religious studies said she wanted to finish her athletic career first. She didn’t want to be a distraction or detriment to her sport or university. 

“Now, it’s just me I’m representing and the notion of being bald for a while doesn’t bother me.”

  Since she’s losing every bit of the long hair she’s sported for most of her years—in a length that she figures will take two years to regrow—Willis is donating what’s cut to Locks of Love. The organization provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children with long-term hair loss.

  Willis said she’s been impressed at how easy the St. Baldrick’s Foundation makes the fundraising process for those who take part.

  “They have a website where you get your own page folks can visit to find out what I’m doing and how to make a donation,” she said. (See  details that follow story.)

  Willis—who’ll be working through Teach for America instructing 7th- and 8th-graders in science come fall—has also used Facebook and connections she has here and in Charlottesville to vigorously seek donations.

  “I’ve gotten everything from $10 or $20 donations from classmates to one for  $500 from friends of our family,” she said. “People have been so responsive and I really haven’t been doing this for that long.”

  Sure, anyone can get her head shaved and seek contributions.

  But this latest altruistic effort is more the rule than the exception for Willis.

  Working through the sort of community outreach programs U.Va. students are encouraged to be part of, the field hockey player many remember as one of J.M’s toughest took alternative spring-break trips to New Orleans and Honduras.

  For those weeks, she rehabbed storm-damaged houses at the former and helped to build an orphanage at the latter.

  During her time at U.Va., Willis served on the Honor Council, Student Council and in the Women’s Leadership Development Program.

  That’s not something you see from every student preparing to graduate with a slick and shiny head of hair under her graduation cap.


Rob Hedelt:  540/374-5415


 For  more about Phoebe Willis’ drive to raise money for childhood cancer research, or to contribute, see