It takes thousands of volunteers and donors to raise almost $500,000 for pediatric cancer research at one event. It also takes one hell of a master of ceremonies to pull it off.
Meet Charles “Chow” Downey. He presides over the annual St. Baldrick’s Foundation fundraiser at Kitty Hoynes Irish Pub in Syracuse, NY. He’ll do it again Sunday, for the 11th consecutive year.
The Kitty Hoynes fundraiser has ranked in the top five St. Baldrick’s events worldwide each of the past several years — a remarkable feat for a financially struggling Snow Belt city. “It’s a tight-knit community,” Chow said of Syracuse. “People stick around. And those who leave miss it.”
In its first 10 years, the Syracuse event has raised more than $3 million, including a record $492,000 in 2014. Chow is the face, and the voice, of St. Baldrick’s Day.
He does his homework, researching the stories behind the kids with cancer — too many of them angels now — and getting to know the family members, friends and complete strangers who shave their heads each March.
Each year, during a break in the day-long shaving of about 500 heads, a few moms and dads take the small stage at Kitty Hoynes. They thank the “shavees,” the stylists, and the financial contributors.
They stand and speak, looking out at hundreds of faces, with posters of their children decorating the walls behind them. They talk about the importance of research, and the advances being made — even if those advances didn’t come fast enough to save their own child.
If you’re thinking there’s not a dry eye in the house at that point, you are correct.
Take a look at Chow during St. Baldrick’s Day, and you can see how much the loss of those kids affects him. This year will be tougher than most. Since November, cancer has claimed four people in his life — including his 58-year-old sister last month.
Chow’s day job as a regional sales manager for Pepsi takes him on the road a lot. Back in the office, he regains his footing by looking at the wall where he has posted photos and thank-you letters from St. Baldrick’s families. They’ve been touched by Chow’s kindness and sincerity. He has felt the same in return.
“It’s about the families,” Chow said Monday after appearing on a local TV program to promote St. Baldrick’s. “It’s a Catch-22. You’d never have met those people otherwise, but it’s an awful thing they go through.”
Chow, 49, is a well-known and admired presence in the city. He emcees the annual Irish Fest, volunteered for years with Project Children (a program that brought children from Northern Ireland to Syracuse each summer) and occasionally tends bar at Kitty Hoynes.
Proprieter David Hoyne made a wise decision 11 years ago when he asked Chow to serve as master of ceremonies for St. Baldrick’s. “He’s brought it to another level,” David said. “Chow is a great community person. The number of hours he puts into researching each person’s story, the connection he makes with them, that’s what has made this so successful. That’s what brings people back.”
Mary Kane, who has known Chow since he was an altar boy at their Catholic church in the 1970s, said he is “funny and loud, yet extremely faithful to his friends, heritage, hometown, faith and family.” And, she added, Chow is the most philanthropic and loving person she knows.
“He puts words into action,” Mary said. “His passion for these causes is quite moving. He makes people want to do better, be better.”
Chow will do that again on Sunday, and it will be exhausting. But it’s worth it to him, as it is to the hundreds of people whose lives he makes better each St. Baldrick’s Day.
“I’m never going to not do it,” he said. “I get energized. No matter how tired you are, you’re not going to be as tired as these kids. When you see what they go through first-hand, it changes you forever.”
Below is an excerpt from a letter gracing Chow’s office wall. It’s written to Chow and David Hoyne, from a mom whose son had died and was honored at Kitty Hoynes:
“Such incredible kids & families this year, all the stories, all the broken hearts, all the pain, joy, laughter, sorrow and emptiness … so many emotions & feelings packed into that little bar in Armory Square. For all those in attendance, that one very special day each year will become a part of who they are — remembering our kids who have died and going on to raise awareness for those little ones who continue the fight … but can’t fight this on their own. With warmest regards & my deepest thanks, Aimee McBride”