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Article of Interest - Inspiration

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Courage
Nicole Geary, Lansing State Journal, October 10, 2005
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Hair was her worst enemy. The disease was fighting each follicle, but the battle raged much deeper than the roots. By freshman year, Caitlin Riley was losing more than brunette locks. Her confidence was crushed. Her faith was faltering. "I thought that if God loved me, he wouldn't give me something that caused so much pain," she said. Alopecia areata doesn't hurt. But being bald in high school breaks down a teenage girl.

She hid at home and under wigs - until a woman, a conference and the care of an entire school community changed everything.

Uncanny connection

Caitlin, now 17, started seeing the woman at hockey games last year.

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She noticed her at the school play wearing a scarf over her bare head.

They talked briefly at a store because she thought the classmate's mom might have alopecia. She learned Pam Haan was going through chemotherapy for breast cancer.

It didn't matter. At Ash Wednesday Mass, Haan gave her young acquaintance an inspiration just by being there.

At the beginning of Lent, when Catholics search their souls and make sacrifices, Caitlin saw a beautiful older woman going bald with grace.

"I thought God was trying to tell me, I'm supposed to give up my fear of going bald," she said.

For three years before that, she brushed off her parents' attempts to help. She didn't want to go to a conference for people with alopecia.

"I was in denial. I thought, if I go, then I have it."

This summer, she signed up.

"It goes to show, you never know who's going to be influenced by your actions," Haan said.

Transforming trip

The Florida hotel lobby was a sea of bald heads.

All ages, races and phases.

Caitlin, who has the most common form of alopecia, cowered in an elevator corner, still not sure about shedding the wig.

But it didn't take long. Caitlin went to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation's first night of events.

"We saw her hat and her wig laying on the bed the rest of the weekend," her dad, Tom Riley, said.

She went swimming for the first time in five years. She went everywhere with a group of gorgeous bald girls, just like herself.

Finally, she found the weapons to win her duel with the disease. The old outgoing personality came pouring through.

"I was happy at times, but I think it was because of outward influences," she said, thinking over the time since she was diagnosed.

"Now it comes from within."

Courageous confession

Free of wigs and worry, Caitlin put pencil to paper within days of flying home to Lansing.

Her parents stood back, watching the change they always hoped would come.

"She was possessed," Riley said. "She was ready to charge in."

School at Lansing Catholic Central High School was about to begin, and Caitlin wanted her last year to be different.

All 500 of the school's students received a letter penned by Caitlin.

"I felt so alone and didn't like to talk. ... I was hurting so much on the inside," her classmates read.

"I'm letting you know, so you won't be too surprised the first time you see me ... you'll see me bald."

If they were prepared, if they understood, maybe they wouldn't tease her, Caitlin thought.

Meanwhile, school leaders were getting ready to launch the annual school theme.

They chose a Bible passage about courage. Throughout the year, it would remind students that Jesus calls them to tough out their own trials, to reach out to others.

No one could tell it better than Caitlin, Principal Tom Maloney said.

On the first day during first hour, she stood up in the school's gym to tell her story.

She was bald and bared her soul. The students gave her a standing ovation.

"I was hoping that maybe one day she could come out with it," said best friend Bridget Colosimo, one of the few who knew about Caitlin's secret struggle.

"Whatever problems we have, we can look at her and say, 'I can do it.' "

Crowning moment

Another turning point passed when she played powder puff football last week.

For once at school, she didn't have to wonder if her wig would fall off, and she won't anymore.

She's more comfortable without it.

But Caitlin never could have guessed what would happen next.

When the moment came Saturday, it was before a crowd of cheering friends, faculty and family members who saw beyond her baldness.

She was named homecoming queen.

Caitlin can move forward.

Her smiles are filled with strength.

More than anything, her spirit is ready to stop blaming forces beyond her control.

"Now I realize that wasn't fair," she said.

"I'm more open to say, 'OK, that's God working.' "

     

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