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'Bandana Brigade' Raises Awareness

American Martyrs eighth graders sell bandanas to benefit Karen Beebe and cancer research.

When the kids at in Manhattan Beach wear their pink bandanas tied around their foreheads, they call it "sushi-chef style." No matter how the bandanas are worn, they represent a badge of honor, say the 13 eighth graders who sold them for $2 each as part of a school service project.

The sale was Jo Duchesne's idea. Ultra-mature and poised for her age, the 13-year-old Redondo Beach resident wanted to pay tribute to the school gym director, Karen Beebe, who suffers from breast cancer.

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“We all love her,” Jo said over yogurt the day she and five of her classmates gathered at Tutti Fruitti on Pacific Coast Highway to talk about the bandanna project.

Along with honoring "Mrs. Beebe," Jo was moved to work toward a cancer cure for family reasons. "My cousin died of breast cancer when she was 16," she said.

Karen Beebe was impressed that Jo first went to American Martyrs principal, Camryn Connelly, before approaching her with the idea of selling the scarves to raise money for the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

"That Jo is something else, isn't she?" the gym director said last week, a gleeful note in her voice. "She had her little notebook with her and went over all the points she and the principal had discussed, asking if I was OK with it. I told her it would mean so much to me. But it isn't about me," Beebe stressed, saying that it is about prevention for girls like Jo.

What Beebe didn't anticipate was the "sea of pink bandanas" she witnessed when the entire K-8 school gathered for an outdoor assembly in October. "There were pink bandanas everywhere, on their heads, around their necks on their backpacks..."

Beebe, who lost her hair from repeated chemo treatments, gave up on wigs soon after her first diagnosis in 2005. "Whenever I wore a wig I felt like I had a stuffed animal on my head," she said during an interview earlier this year.

Instead of a wig, Beebe, who has served as gym director at American Martyrs Catholic Community for the past 12 years, took to wearing scarves and funny hats. As legendary for her humor as she is for her smile, Beebe, a Redondo resident, is known to show up at school even on her bad days just to see "my kids," as she calls the students.

"These kids lift me every single day," Beebe said. "They mean everything to me, their smiles and hugs, it's what keeps me going."

It all started at the end of the last school year, when Monsignor John Barry, the pastor at American Martyrs, gave each of the seventh graders $10 and asked them to come up with a service project over the summer.

"He gave the money to 64 of us," said Jo, who invited a dozen friends to join her in the Beebe project.

Strength in numbers paid off. The 13 students, now eighth graders, pooled their funds and—with an added donation from Jo's parents, Katie and Steve—purchased 650 bandanas.

Katie Duchesne, who ordered the pink cotton scarves over the Internet, said Jo and her friends sold the bandanas in early October so the students at American Martyrs could wear them every Wednesday during the month as a way to honor Mrs. Beebe. 

"They raised $2,011, which has been donated to the National Breast Cancer Foundation," Duchesne said.

Guys on the Beebe Bandana Brigade were fine with wearing pink, said Ryan Brown, 13, of Manhattan Beach. (All the boys that took part in the interview are 13 and from Manhattan Beach.)  

"Mrs. Beebe's son, Brett, has a Facebook page called 'Long Hair Don't Care,' and it shows his pink hockey jersey," Ryan said. "The whole team wears the same jersey."

Brett Beebe, 21, plays hockey at Western Michigan University, where he is a junior. Brett designed a T-shirt with his mother's name and the pink ribbon that has become the cancer foundation's logo.

Although the bandana sale has ended, the T-shirts are available for $15 on Brett's "Long Hair Don't Care" website and have raised more than $15,000 to fight the disease.

Matthew Donatucci said he helped "JoJo" sell bandanas before and after school. "We'd set up a stand and have some signs around and people would come over and buy from us," he said.

"We made announcements at our school assembly," added Ryan. "We told everyone when to buy them, where to buy them, how much they cost and when they could wear them."

One man surprised Ryan by handing him $100 and asking for only one bandana. "People were giving $20 bills or $10 bills or $50 for Mrs. Beebe and the Breast Cancer Foundation," he said.

Will Riordan said that a lot of first- and second-grade students wanted to buy them. "It was kind of nice to see the expression on their faces when they got a bandana," he said.

Rob Mullahey talked about buying a bandana for his "little buddy." The Little Buddy program at American Martyrs has eighth-grade students shepherding first graders, sitting with them at Mass and getting together with them several times a year. "They just kind of look up to us," Rob said. "We're like their mentors."

But when Rob's little buddy approached Jo for a bandana, and she told him they had run out, the little boy was crushed. Then he learned that Rob had purchased one for him. "It made his day," Mullahey said.

Kellen Silver recalled the woman who paid $40 for 20 scarves. "She was going to hand them out to all the workers in the gym," Kellen said. "They were going to surprise Mrs. Beebe [by wearing them]. I thought that was a really great thing."

There were numerous other stories, like the first grader named Beau who kept buying scarves and wearing three at a time and the crossing guard who paid for extra scarves and asked that they be given to those who couldn't afford them.

Some who were unable to attend the yogurt shop get-together had other stories.

Ellie Nolan talked about starting her own Beebe project last spring by making 300 braided bracelets and mosaic crosses symbolizing breast cancer awareness and donating the proceeds to the Breast Cancer Foundation in Karen Beebe's name.

"Karen Beebe is like an aunt to me," said Ellie, who has known the gym director most of her life. "I used to bring her fuzzy beanies and socks to wear to keep her head and feet warm after chemo. I brought her a fuzzy blanket and a Pillow Pet to use during the day when she was tired."

Calling Beebe her "hero," Ellie, who plans to be even more proactive in raising money toward a cure in the future, marvels at how the gym director battles her illness and the side affects and still keeps a smile on her face for students.

"My mom says it is because we bring her such joy," Ellie said. "But she does the same for all of us."

Beebe's reaction was characteristic. "My doctor told me that I'm his only patient who still works," she said. "I told him I wouldn't be who I am if I didn't see these kids every day."

As gym director, Beebe exerts her influence and serves as a positive role model, said Katie Duchesne

"Karen is trying to emphasize with the kids that their own health is a big issue,"  Duchesne said. "She's repeatedly telling the girls who come to the gym, 'Don't let yourself get too thin. Keep yourself healthy.'"

In a previous interview, Beebe stressed that any donations for cancer research and detection in her name "are for all these young women growing up that I hope to God never have to go through this."

What warmed the hearts of all the eighth graders was how pleased Beebe was with the project. "She was all smiles when I told her how much we raised," Jo  said. 

The Beebe Bandana Brigade hopes other students will repeat the effort next year. The entire experience was so rewarding, Jo said: "We were just on Cloud 9; we were so happy."

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