Phoebe Willis and her St. Baldrick's journey

April 25, 2013, 9:06 a.m. (ET)

by: Chelsea Shine 

Perhaps one of the most difficult times in a division I student-athlete’s career is when their final season comes to an end. Without practice, games and post-season workouts, many athletes find themselves looking for things to do in the last few months before they become official alumni. Phoebe Willis found St. Baldricks.

Willis, a four-year member of the field hockey team, has been heavily involved in the UVa and Charlottesville communities throughout her four years. She served as Vice President of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), a committee made up of student-athletes who serve as a liaison between student-athletes and the athletics department and administration. “I got involved in SAAC my first-year because it directly affects me and my teammates and it’s something that’s important to me.” In April 2012, Willis became a member of the Class of 2013 Trustees. Serving on the class giving committee, she has been active in planning events and reaching out to groups around grounds to engage and educate fourth-years on ways to give back to the University. “I wanted to be on this committee because the class giving campaign is the first chance our class will have to be able to give back and become donors. Because I really enjoyed my time at UVa, it’s a great way to make UVa better and leave your mark.”

In November 2012, at the end of her final field hockey season, Willis decided she wanted to continue to be a part of something special. “Once field hockey was over, I realized how much I enjoyed being a part of a team and now I was looking to be a part of something bigger than just me. I found St. Baldrick's and decided to make it a personal challenge. I set a goal to raise $25,000.” The St. Baldrick's Foundation, a childhood cancer charity that funds research to help find cures for kids with cancer, is where Willis decided she wanted to invest her time—and her hair. After committing to the cause in late November, Willis began her fundraising efforts as she looked forward to March, when she would have her head shaved in honor of children who are diagnosed with cancer.

Then she met Travis, a 12 year old boy who was diagnosed with leukemia. Willis spent a day with Travis and his family at the Virginia Commonwealth University Children’s Center where Travis undergoes chemotherapy each month. After watching what he went through, Willis was very humbled and motivated. “Meeting Travis gave me a personal link to this cause and it really motivated me to up my fundraising efforts. But it’s not just about the money, I realized at that point it is about spreading the word on childhood cancer, what it is and how it affects kids,” Willis said.

On March 21, 2013, after months of reaching out to family, friends, local businesses and anyone who wanted to help, Willis found herself at the Biltmore, a local restaurant in Charlottesville that hosted the St. Baldrick's event, where she prepared to have her own head shaved. “Everyone who was with me was so nervous, but that just made me calmer,” Willis said. “I knew this moment would come when I decided to support this cause so I was ready for it.” With 100 others who shaved their heads that same night for St. Baldrick's, Willis recalls what it was like: “I remember feeling so overwhelmed having all these people around supporting me, and when Travis and his family showed up, I got very emotional. Every time you talk about cancer, it has a negative connotation, but this event really turned cancer on its head and made it a positive time.”

A few weeks after the event, Willis has adjusted to her “new do” and doesn’t mind the many inquiries she gets each day about her new look. “It doesn’t bother me at all when people ask to touch my head, it makes for a great conversation starter!” Willis says eventually she’ll grow her hair out, but for now she’s going to enjoy trying out some fun hairdos. Willis has raised over $14,500 and will continue her fundraising efforts through December 31, 2013 in hopes to reach her goal of $25,000 to help fund research to find a cure for childhood cancer.

However, in the midst of all she’s involved in, Willis has realized that it is each opportunity and experience along the way that has empowered her to do the next thing. “While my St. Baldrick's journey is something I am very proud of, there is no way I would be who I am today without passing my first field hockey fitness test, becoming a support member of the Honor Committee, joining the Class of Trustees, and even traveling to Honduras to volunteer at an orphanage as part of an alternative spring break trip,” Willis said. She expressed her gratitude for those who have made her time at UVa possible. “I have had an experience that is unlike any other. I was on a team with a lot of successful student-athletes and that drove me to get better every day. Uncompromised Excellence is not just something that student-athletes say, but they really embody it. All the things that make it possible to be a student and an athlete wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for the donors. I am so grateful. It’s one of the best things that has happened in my life so far.”

To learn more about St. Baldrick's visit