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Beanies for Baldies: Caring boy's creations help cancer patients

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Restocking his fleece is no easy task for Preston.
(Photo by Polly Blair)
Most 10-year-old boys spend a good amount of their free time playing video games or worrying about what the girls in class think about them.

Preston Allen of Murfreesboro is not like most 10-year-old boys.

This is not to say that Preston isn't full of smiles and laughs, or doesn't like to get outside and have fun. Playing soccer, riding four-wheelers, and horsing around with his three dogs are just a few of his favorite hobbies. Simply put, Preston's been dealt a different hand than your typical 10-year-old.

True fighter

Preston has never known a life without cancer. He's battled and beaten cancer twice. He's lost his father to the disease.

Preston Allen and his plethora of fleece.
(Photo by Polly Blair)
And although Preston is cancer-free today, he's still fighting the disease -- a sewing machine and fleece as his weapons.

Preston makes what some call toboggan or stocking caps. He calls them "Beanies for Baldies."

At five months, Preston was diagnosed with Langerhans cell histiocytosis -- a term for cancer in white blood cells that Preston enunciates with all too much ease.

"I've gotten used to saying hard words that have to do with cancer," Preston says.

A team...for awhile

Eight months after Preston's diagnosis, another bomb was dropped. Preston's father, Dana, had Stage IV colon cancer and was given six months to live.

Preston and Dana fought cancer together for more than five years at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

"They were very close," Preston's mother, Tonya, says. "They called each other their 'port buddy,' referring to the port-a-cath that is used to administer the chemotherapy."

Dana Allen fought colon cancer for nearly eight years before he passed away in April 2010, far exceeding the initial six-month window he was given.

Spark ignited

Last August, Preston was again diagnosed with cancer. This time he'd be battling Hodgkin's Lymphoma -- a diagnosis that would make a normal person's knees buckle.

"The weird thing is that I was used to going up there, so this time I wasn't scared," says Preston. "I was like, 'ok.'"

A week into Preston's chemo treatments, he lost his hair. It started getting cold and Preston wanted something original to keep his head warm.

Preston sporting his favorite beanie at Hancock Fabrics.
(T-G Photo by Mitchell Petty)
"I took him to the store and let him pick out three or four fleece prints," Tonya says. "Once he'd made himself a couple of hats, he told me that he wanted to make hats for the other kids at the cancer center. That's when Beanies for Baldies was born."

The store that Preston and Tonya visited was Hancock Fabrics in Murfreesboro, and not only would it become their fleece source, it would also introduce them to one of their strongest allies, Polly Blair.

New helper

"Preston and his mom were in the store and [his mom] asked for some help with a sewing machine," Blair says. "In talking to her, she explained, 'This isn't for me, it's for him. I'm buying him a sewing machine so I can have mine back!'"

Blair has been a huge help to the Allens, bringing attention to their cause by contacting blog friends and driving traffic to the Beanies for Baldies online shop -- where the hats cost only $5.

"It seems to be working, as people are coming out of the woodwork to help," Blair says. "Just a few nights ago, I was cutting fleece for [the Allens] in the store and there was a line of people waiting. To keep them from getting impatient, I told them about what Preston does. They all got involved in the conversation, and by the time Preston and his mother left, they had been given two donations and an offer to help them sew the beanies."

Word spreads

The Allens' Beanies for Baldies mission has caught on quite quickly over the past two months. Last month, one of Preston's hats was auctioned off at an American Cancer Society Relay For Life benefit dance and auction last month in Shelbyville. It proceeded to be bought and re-auctioned several times, bringing in a total of nearly $950 for the American Cancer Society.

Additionally, through Blair's plugging and Preston's remarkable draw, they've been featured on at least five blogs across the United States, and even one in New Zealand.

The Allens have gone from donating to just one hospital -- Vanderbilt -- to now supplying hats to five additional hospitals, including St. Jude's, Children's Hospital Colorado, Children's Medical Center of Dallas and Cincinnati Children's Hospital.

"It makes the kids feel special when we deliver the hats and they get to choose their perfect pattern," says Tonya. "They're bald, and everyone stares at them; but if they have a hat on, no one knows. Just to have something new -- something to help them feel normal -- makes it really special."

Preston is hard at work sewing a hat.
(Photo by Polly Blair)
Special touch

So far, Tonya estimates that they've given away nearly 350 beanies. And although their operation is growing, the Allens intend to maintain their method of production and delivery.

"We want the hats to always be made by a person, one at a time," Tonya says. "The love and the intent needs to be there. I don't want it to be a box that the hospital just gets in the mail. We have volunteers in each city that personally deliver the beanies."

The Allens make a delivery each month at Vanderbilt, but every three months, that delivery coincides with a check-up for Preston. Although Preston is cancer-free and his hair has grown back, he is not disease-free.

Issues remain

Preston's treatments have created other medical issues that will remain with him for life. He now has diabetes insipidus, which creates endocrine issues that keep his kidneys from functioning properly.

Preston also does not produce growth hormones anymore because chemotherapy treatments have damaged his pituitary gland. But somehow, like usual, Preston is finding a way to beat the odds. He's grown six inches in a year, and at his last doctor's appointment he was told that he'd grown an inch over the past three months.

"God's holding a watering can over my head," Preston says.

Currently, the Allens are trying to incorporate Beanies for Baldies so they can file for a 501C charity status, making donations become tax-deductable. Last week, they received a $300 donation that will cover the fees to trademark Preston's "Beanies for Baldies" name.

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What you are doing is great. I'm a Hodgkin's lymphoma patient and I'm only 21. I'm still taking treatments for it. This makes my third time doing it. I lost my hair back in October just shortly after starting treatments. Keep up the good work and know I'm thinking about you and will keep u in my prayers. If you want I have a caringbridge site you can visit if you want. Its caringbridge.org/visit/kishia.

-- Posted by krader21 on Sun, Feb 19, 2012, at 8:25 PM

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