On any New Year’s Day since 2013, if you happened to be at Riverfront Green in Peekskill, looking toward the Hudson River, you might think you hadn’t fully recovered from the prior evening’s festivities and were hallucinating.
But even stone cold sober, your eyes wouldn’t be deceiving you. Yes, that was a large throng of people running into the icy waters in summery bathing suits. Even those not ready to take the plunge are on hand to cheer the “brrrrave” bathers, chattering teeth and all.
The people in the water are participants in the annual Polar Plunge, which just dove into its fifth straight year, with a record-setting turnout and monies raised. The event is the creation of the This Is Me Foundation, which raises money for college scholarships. The Polar Plunge, generously sponsored by The Quiet Man Public House restaurant, is its largest fundraiser of the year.
The This Is Me Foundation is an inspiring example of how a grassroots charity rallies people around it and does well by doing good.
At its core are sisters Lauren and Caitlin Brady of Peekskill. Their story is powerful and instructive: it reminds us that even a debilitating twist of fate can lead to a path of hope that helps those who need it.
While still in high school, the sisters were diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss. It is called alopecia areata.
On their website (ThisIsMeFoundation.com), there are stories from others affected by the condition who live as far away as California and North Carolina.
We learn of a 12-year-old boy discovering patches of baldness. He becomes embarrassed to go to school without wearing a cap all the time. Then there’s the varsity cheerleading captain who seemingly inherited the condition from her father. She would bleed from dull needles poking her scalp during treatment.
Although alopecia areata is “often a struggle to deal with,” as the foundation’s website states, Caitlin and Lauren Brady stayed positive during their high school years. At the same time, they never saw a particular reason to openly discuss their condition outside the family.
That all changed in January 2011. While watching a beauty pageant, the siblings were thunderstruck by the sight of one contestant, Miss Delaware Kayla Martell, removing her wig in front of a national television audience. Ms. Martell courageously announced right then and there that she had alopecia and intended to compete in the 2011 Miss America pageant wearing a wig.
That’s all Lauren and Caitlin needed to hear. Their future mission was decided: use the inspiration of Kayla Martell to, in turn, inspire others. In the past six years, they have done that—and much more.
Within less than a month of watching the pageant, the Brady bunch produced a 2-1/2-minute public service announcement (PSA) and posted it on YouTube. They say, “The video was created to not only raise awareness about alopecia, but to try and inspire anyone who faces any adversity.”
In the video, a number of young people appear in rapid-fire vignettes. First, they identify something about themselves that may seem out of the ordinary, then they express in their own words how important it is to not let any kind of abnormality get in your way, or define you adversely.
“Love yourself first,” says one young woman, “and the rest will follow.” As Lauren Brady says at video’s end, while doffing her wig, “We’re all different, and we’re all beautiful.”
Lauren Brady, 31, is event manager for the Hudson Valley Gateway Chamber of Commerce. Her infectious energy and witty personality infuse the foundation’s work and its ever-broadening appeal.
Caitlin, 26, is a freelance choreographer who dances and teaches at Hudson Dance and Tumble Center in Montrose.
Lauren and Caitlin’s two other sisters are Kris Ann, who lives in New York City, and Nikki, a senior at Iona College.
The siblings’ parents—well known throughout the community for their selfless and endless volunteer work—are Ann and Joe Brady, who have lived in Peekskill for 32 years.
In January 2012, the Brady sisters began awarding scholarships through This Is Me. The college students who receive the financial support are “local high school alumni who have displayed leadership skills while having faced adversity of any kind or helped others through adversity.” Other scholarships are given to college students anywhere in the United States who have experienced alopecia.
The scholarships are presented in honor of the Bradys’ dear friends Ryan Risco (Peekskill High Class of 2002) and Cait Chivonne Polhill (Walter Panas High Class of 2001), “who left this world far too soon, but forever instilled in us their support and friendship.”
This Is Me is the only organization in America that gives scholarships for alopecia.
The Foundation has a strong presence on social media, including the following: facebook.com/thisismefoundation.com, instagram.com/thisismefndn, twitter.com/thisismefndn and youtube.com/lnbent.
Bruce Apar is chief content officer of Google Partner Agency, Pinpoint Marketing & Design, as well as an actor and a regular contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce the Blog on social media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-275-6887.