Cory Lillis still has a few years to go before undertaking a bar mitzva project, but he has already spent more than a year on a mission to help people battling cancer.
Cory spent 16 months growing his straight brown hair long enough to meet the requirements of a program by the Pantene hair care company that converts donated ponytails into wigs for cancer patients who have become bald after undergoing chemotherapy.
Seated in the kitchen of his home in West Orange, Cory said he began growing his hair “because one of my teachers got cancer.” That teacher is Theresa Garrison, who was Cory’s fourth grade instructor this past year at Pleasantdale School in West Orange.
When Cory stopped getting haircuts in April 2012, his mother, Alyse, had doubts about his commitment. “At first I thought this was going to be…short-lived,” she said. “But at the end of last summer he kept going.”
Being the only long-haired boy in his class didn’t faze Cory. “It was kinda fun,” he said. “Anyone who was really asking about it, I didn’t want them to call me any bad names so I told them I was growing it for Pantene.”
Sixteen months and eight inches later, when Cory’s ponytail was long enough to donate, the school turned his haircut into a special event.
On June 13, students gathered in Cory’s classroom, along with his parents, his sister Shayna, and his brother, Scott. With them were Pleasantdale principal Joann Pollara and her sister, Angela Spatola.
Spatola is a survivor of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma who happens to be a beautician. Garrison and Spatola told the students what it meant to cancer patients to lose their hair.
“The kids had no idea what was going to happen,” said Alyse. “Then Angela began pony-tailing his hair, and getting the scissors out, and there was a hush in the room — like ‘He’s doing it now! In front of us!’”
The occasion made Cory an instant celebrity. “When he left for lunch, students applauded Cory as he walked out of the building. They even chased our car as we left the school,” said Alyse.
Cory said he may grow his hair long again before his bar mitzva at Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston. In the meantime, he is collecting tabs from soda cans to be donated to the Ronald McDonald House in Long Branch and sold at recycling centers. The proceeds help finance rooms for parents of cancer patients while their children are treated in nearby hospitals.
“I am happy because I am giving,” said Cory.
Weeks after his haircut, Cory’s mother continues to kvell. “I am so proud of the fact that at nine he took this on for himself,” she said. It wasn’t something where I said, ‘You should do this.’ He said, ‘I’m just gonna help,’ and he just kept going all year long.”