Our family has known the Connells for a dozen years or more. We used to be neighbors, then we both moved to different areas of Shakopee. My younger son and Riley Connell have been friends since before kindergarten. They used to play together regularly in the neighborhood. Now they’re seniors at Shakopee High School.

During the winter of Riley’s freshman year in school, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The news sent the family reeling. “That entire ninth-grade year was tough for me,” he said. “It felt like it just dragged on and on, and I didn’t want to be in school. I lost a lot of motivation.”

Over the last couple years, Sara Connell, who’s a kindergarten teacher at Sun Path Elementary, has gone through brutal cancer treatments, including chemo and radiation treatments. She ended up losing her hair, and when she went shopping for wigs, Riley went with her.

“When she was picking out her wigs, I saw how much of an impact it had on her,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to be so emotional. When she put on a wig, it looked so natural.”

That’s when Riley decided to grow out his hair and donate it for wigs for people battling cancer. He plans to cut it and make the donation next spring, right before graduation.

“It’s doing a great thing and I could really help someone out who is in a bad situation,” he said.

When he lets down his brown hair, it cascades about halfway down his back and makes him look like a rock star. Typically, he wears his hair in a bun because he can quickly tie it up.

“I’ve wanted to grow my hair out since second grade, but my mom always wanted me to get it cut. After she found out she had cancer, I talked to her about growing it out and why I wanted to do it, and she supported it,” he said. “Now I can donate my hair and help someone’s parent.”

Riley usually spends a half-hour or so each morning washing and combing his hair. “It’s a love-hate relationship. Some days I love it. It’s hard to describe, but I like the way it feels when it blows in the wind. Some days I want to cut it all off because when I have a bad hair day, it’s hard to manage.”

On his 17th birthday last November, Riley got a tattoo on his inner arm to mark his mother’s struggle. His mother fully supported the decision. She helped him design it, then drove him to South Dakota to get the tattoo because Minnesota requires people to be 18 years of age or older, even with parental consent, to get inked. The tattoo says “Mom” beneath a pink cancer ribbon imposed over a sea of red roses.

“I like the design and getting a tattoo is a way for me to commemorate her fight against cancer,” he said. “People say, ‘You know that’s permanent, right?’ I’m like, ‘I’m glad it’s here and glad it’s forever.’”

Sara’s story has a happy ending. She’s now cancer free, although the anxiety of it coming back and dealing with the side effects of the treatments are ongoing. Riley says she’s one of the strongest people he knows, which is why he’s proud of his tattoo and glad for the opportunity to donate his hair in her honor.

“I have a lot of admiration for my mom,” he explains. “Now I feel a lot better because she beat cancer, and I can help other people. By telling people my mom’s story, I can let them know there’s still hope for them, too. If there’s a dark period in their life, they can know other people went through it too, and it does get better.”

Brett Martin is a community columnist who’s been a Shakopee resident for over 15 years.

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