By Jenny Neyman
In education, there are endless understated opportunities for teachers to show their true colors — volunteering at a school carnival, cheering at sports or academic events, maintaining patience despite a tiring day, offering a never-ending supply of encouragement and support.
Cook Inlet Academy Principal Mary Rowley was more demonstrative last week, wearing her heart for students not on her sleeve, but on her head, dyeing her hair blue to raise money for a student’s mission trip.
“It’s not a subtle blue. If you’re going to go blue, you might as well go blue,” said Rowley on Monday, nearing the end of five school days with her normally blonde hair dyed blue — bright, deep, serious blue.
The school is arranging a trip to Peru from March 20 through April 3, with 13 students from high school and junior high and seven adults, to volunteer at an orphanage and elementary school and share their commitment to God. Each person must raise $2,500 to go. Support from family and friends provides a large chunk of the funding, with the group also doing fundraisers, such as selling Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the community and holding a Peruvian dinner and auction fundraiser Jan. 31 at the school.
Ciara Gale, a sophomore, was short on funding and wanted to come up with something special to do for the auction. She and kindergarten teacher Ginni Delon, who is spearheading the mission trip, brainstormed some options.
“We were trying to think of items to be auctioned and we thought it would be funny to have a teacher do something crazy and raise money that way,” Delon said. “We came up with the idea of Mrs. Rowley dyeing her hair.”
“I’m like, ‘There’s no way Mrs. Rowley is going to agree to that,’” Gale said.
So they got even more creative.
“Mrs. Delon said, “‘Well, come up with ideas that are even more extreme and then she’ll have to agree to it.’ We came up with skydiving and taking a video of it and we came up with the highest bidder could choose what tattoo she would get and where it would be,” Gale said.
As it turns out, the extremes weren’t necessary. Rowley was an easy sell. For every $100 donated by the end of the auction, Rowley would spend a day with her hair dyed blue.
“Why wouldn’t I? You can’t take yourself too seriously, right? And here’s a chance for one of my students to go through a life-changing experience,” Rowley said. “We’ve seen so many kids, their lives really change as a result of these mission trips. … There’s nothing like it to grow their hearts and to get a good personal perspective on priorities in life and what’s important.”
But she did want to set some parameters.
“Because what if they had raised $2,000?” she said.
She set a max of 10 days, in return for some concessions. For one, it had to be school days.
“And they said it couldn’t be blue streaks and it couldn’t be blue tips, it had to be all blue,” Rowley said.
Gale raised over $500.
“She already had her hair appointment set the following Monday after the fundraiser. She just knew we’d raise the money,” Delon said.
Rowley went to AK Kutz and considered her options. The stylist suggested a soft, sort of cornflower blue, but Rowley wasn’t having it. She chose a vibrant, electric blue.
‘I was like, ‘No, if I’m going to do blue, people need to know that I’m really out there,’” Rowley said.
And it is out there, seeing a bespectacled, mildly dressed, middle-aged woman with hair you could pick out of a football stadium crowd (she doesn’t watch football, but she could have passed for the area’s biggest Seahawks fan).
“I did send out an email to all my parents so the little ones wouldn’t get totally blown away,” Rowley said.
She went blue last week, so she spent the weekend with her new shade, as well.
“One lady asked if it was catching. I told her, ‘No, it’s just so cold outside it turned my hair blue,’” Rowley said. “Usually the younger people in the stores come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I really love your hair.’ Older people try not to make eye contact. And some people come up and really are very gracious and ask about it, so I tell them about the mission trip.”
Arranging the mission is something Delon felt led to do. When she attended CIA she went on six mission trips. But when she returned as a teacher she found the program had dwindled.
“We used to have one or two mission trips every year but unfortunately it hasn’t been as prevalent anymore. I was like, ‘What? Where are the mission trips?’ And they said people aren’t planning them, so I just felt godly in me to start that again,” she said.
She remembers her experiences being revelatory.
“It’s so life-changing for kids for so many reasons, especially to get these teens out of their comfort zone and seeing something that’s so much different that what we’re used to here,” she said. “Let’s spend a couple weeks to, first of all, unplug from electronics, and then to think selflessly and realize how blessed we are. We’re blessed as a country and family and society. … It’s so important for our kids to see there’s something different than Soldotna, especially for kids that have lived here their whole life.”
And yet, Delon said she also realized there are similarities around the world.
“We are expected to give our testimonies, which can be intimidating, especially for a teenager. But it was incredible for me just to share the difficulties I’d had in my life — short life, I was only 16 — and have other teenagers in Russia be able to say, ‘I’ve been through the same thing and that’s helped me.’ How our lives weren’t that different from the teens there. The same problems that affected us here were affecting them there, such as divorced families and peer pressure and that kind of stuff.”
Don Shields, one of the teachers Delon had in elementary school, began a mission to Peru during his time at CIA, helping establish an elementary school and a school for translating curriculum for adults wanting to become pastors. So Delon contacted him — he’s now retired — about helping arrange a new CIA trip to Peru.
“He’s leaving a legacy and we didn’t want this trip to just end with him. So it’s pretty amazing to be involved with,” she said. “Hopefully it generates excitements for future missions.”
The group will spend four days traveling, seven doing mission work and three touring the area, including visiting Machu Picchu.
Gale said she’s excited to work on her Spanish, to visit with kids in Peru and alternately nervous and excited to travel internationally without her parents (her family did a mission trip to Guatemala when she was 8).
“I’ve never really been out of the country without my parents. It’s exciting to be going somewhere with my high school and having fun with other people and sharing the love of God,” she said.
After they get back and have a chance to decompress and reflect, students will share their experiences. Rowley is particularly looking forward to that, as a sort of a return on her out-of-the-blue experience.
“You can’t be in education and not get a return on your investment,” she said.
On Tuesday, Rowley began the lengthy process of returning to a natural shade. She has to go to a dark brunette first and eventually work her way lighter.
“As long as you’re open to that and have fun along the way it’s not a big deal,” she said.
Gale and Delon disagree about the bigness of her willingness to deal.
“She’s just so supportive of the mission trip,” Delon said.
But to Rowley, committing to a mission trip is more noteworthy than committing to a wacky hair color, so she showed her support accordingly.
“It’s been fun,” she said. “I have an incredible staff and a husband who has a good sense of humor, and I don’t think there’s a staff member who works here who wouldn’t do something like that for the kids. She just happened to ask me.”
For more information on the mission trip or to make a donation to support the costs, contact the school at 262-5101.