From the heart
Editor's note: With her Nana undergoing chemotherapy back in the States, 10-year-old Kaitlyn Whelan wanted her to know that she was with her every step of the way. Kaitlyn found a way to show her Nana just that.
“I was really scared because I had never (cut my hair off) before,” said Kaitlyn Whelan, a 10-year-old Navy child living at Sasebo Naval Base. “I felt good about it, but I was (also) a little scared because I didn’t know what people’s reactions would be.”
Kaitlyn, known to all as Kat, had been living a normal life at Sasebo when her mother, Shannon, suddenly called her and her two brothers, Keagan, 14, and Keaton, 13, together for a family meeting in mid-September. Shannon told them that their grandmother, Nana Toni, who had already had two breast cancer operations, was going to undergo chemotherapy and radiation, and that the procedures would cause her hair to fall out.
The fifth grader said immediately she would cut off her own hair so that, “Nana won't have to go through this alone."
“(The idea) just popped into my head. It was just (so) important,” Kat said later.
“At first, I thought she was just saying it off the cuff and didn’t understand the ramifications,” her mother, Shannon, said. “But she kept bringing it up. The third time she said it, and this was a continuing conversation over 48 hours, I emailed her Dad (a senior chief petty officer aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard) and Nana Toni to make sure everyone was on board (with the idea).”
“(Kat’s father) was extremely supportive, though he was taken aback at the level she wanted to take things,” Shannon said. “I told him that I wanted to cut my hair to support my daughter while she is supporting my mother, but he said no. ‘She needs to own this experience,’ he said. ‘Let her have her moment to shine.’”
Kat’s grandmother, Toni Morris, 65, of Selma, N.C., cried when she heard the news. “You have a special daughter. I’m honored to be her grandmother,” she told Shannon.
“We have since sent her the collage of Kat having her hair cut, and she carries it everywhere she goes,” said Shannon. “She tells the story to anyone who will listen and shows them the picture.”
Shannon also contacted officials at Jack N. Darby Elementary School to determine whether they would support Kat and if it was all right for her to wear a scarf in class. And she arranged to prepare Kat’s schoolmates by telling them why Kat was cutting her hair.
“We made sure people around her, particularly her classmates, were prepared before she visited the stylist. It was important that people understand the motivations behind her choice and be prepared adequately to support her. It has worked to her favor more than we imagined,” Shannon said.
At first, Kat’s friends thought she was just joking around, Kat said, but after she explained the reason for her decision, they said they would wear pink feathers in support of people with breast cancer for the rest of the week.
“The counselor came to class and explained it to (other students). Some smaller kids made problems (for me), but my older friends explained things to them,” she said.
It was only two days from the time Kat expressed her intention to cut her hair till the deed was done.
“I don’t think I’ve really had (second thoughts) about what I’ve done. I’m really happy I did it,” Kat said.
Shannon is extremely proud of her daughter, but not surprised by her action. In both fourth grade and fifth grade, Kat had been recognized by her teachers for her empathy toward others when they were asked to name a characteristic that exemplified each student.
“My mother was the first person in the family to have breast cancer, and Kat had a deep emotional reaction to it,” she said.
Shannon sometimes finds her example a little daunting, however.
“For her to take this stance at her age, showing leadership, empathy and that she can be resilient at times like these, I can’t imagine where God will take her,” she said. “I am a bit terrified as to whether I can meet those standards.
“People in the community come up to her and praise her. They have purchased items for my mother and included her in their prayers. I am floored by people’s response to what she did. Many of them wanted us to share her story with others.”
Shannon, a professional photographer, vowed to capture the experience, both for Kat and for others. She took photos at each step of the hair-cutting process and afterward, and through them shows the inner and outer beauty of a girl willing to make a sacrifice for a grandmother she loves very much.
Despite her recent fame, Kat’s classmates basically treat her the same as they used to and so do her brothers, Keagan, 14, and Keaton, 13, Kat said.
“It’s nice for people to say, ‘Oh, that’s really nice for your sister to do that for your family,’ but everything’s normal. She has taken on a big role, but I still treat her like my little sister, not like someone special,” said Keagan.
Kat’s hair is still pretty short. It hasn’t grown even an inch yet, she said, and her mother said it will take a year to fully grow back, joking that it’s starting to look a little like a Chia Pet.
“She enjoys me taking a lot of pictures of her. She is definitely embracing a new look without any problems,” she added.
Note: Nana Toni is now undergoing chemotherapy after two operations, and the prognosis is positive.