SEELEY LAKE – To a visitor passing through town, it seemed as though the entire community turned up at a barbershop here on Saturday to shave their heads, trim their beards and raise money for a family still grieving over the loss of their 4-year-old son.

Last week, Elyjah James drowned in a nearby pond. The loss of the boy has been hard on everyone in this close-knit town, from friends of the family to the rescuers who arrived at the scene and attempted to resuscitate the child and save his life.

“We were on the call when he drowned, and we’re grieving and weeping just like the family,” said Frank Maradeo, chief of the Seeley Lake Fire Department. “Doing something like this is part of the grieving process for us, too.”

Maradeo and several other local firefighters, along with two resident deputies of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department, lined up with members of the Seeley Lake High School basketball team and dozens of other community members at All Decked Out, the local barbershop.

Men sat for a needed trimming of their beard. Women cut off their hair, never mind they’d spent years growing it. Balding deputies cut what little hair they had. The boys’ basketball team would do the same, all in a moving show of community support.

“I thought, ‘It’s only hair, and it’s for a good cause,’ ” said Kathrine Stillwell-Martin, who had her 15-inch pony tail cut off before shaving her head. “I know the mother personally, and I loved the little boy. I wanted to help.”

That little boy, as so many put it Saturday, was Elyjah James. He was found at the pond unconscious on a recent Thursday night at around 6 p.m. His photo hung in the barbershop window. He was holding a dog and grinning as young boys do.

The night he drowned is still on everyone’s mind. Becki Robbins, who owns All Decked Out and organized Saturday’s fundraiser, fought back tears while cutting hair and recalling the night she heard the news.

“My family and I were sitting at the kitchen table eating supper when we heard the sirens go by,” she said. “Five minutes later, Life Flight landed. This particular time – and my neighbors said the same thing – they landed really fast. Normally they circle around a couple times, but this time, they made half a loop and landed. It made my heart sink.”

Robbins, who is close to the boy’s mother, Ember James, felt the same loss so many in this community felt. Wanting to help, she decided to volunteer her time Saturday and donate her wages to aid the family.

But she didn’t expect the event to snowball like it did.

*****

One retired beautician showed up to staff an empty barber’s chair and cut hair. Another arrived from Condon up the Seeley-Swan Valley to help. Local businesses donated free-range chickens, eggs and even a statue of Jesus for auction. Firefighters and law enforcement raised money for the cause, as did the basketball team.

“My friends pitched in to help and make it even bigger,” said Robbins. “The family has the Life Flight bill, and it’s going to be big. I just hope we can raise enough money to pay their mortgage and utilities for a month so they won’t have to stress about that.”

Turns in the chair were fast and the haircuts went for $10. Missoula County Sheriff Department deputies Bob Parcell and Heath Hanson both faced the electric razor.

With nearly 40 inches at stake, Amy Veranarsky would let the community decide the fate of her raven-colored hair. The jury was still out by midday Saturday, though Veranarsky was ready to do whatever it took.

“There’s two cans outside there, and if the ‘don’t-cut’ can gets the most votes, that’s what I’ll do, but if the ‘cut’ can wins, then I’ll cut it,” said Veranarsky. “It’s going to be weird when it’s gone if that’s what happens. But it’s going to a good cause.”

Dressed in his firefighting pants and suspenders – the fire trucks parked outside – Chief Maradeo remembered James and the impact the boy left on the community in his four short years.

The fire department each year hosts young kids at the firehouse, where they feed them pancakes and show off the trucks. James attended twice, dressed each time like a fireman.

That, Maradeo said, stuck in the back of their minds. Robbins also described James as an aspiring rescuer.

“His mother told me that (James) always wanted to ride in an ambulance and in a helicopter,” Robbins said, “and he got to do both.”

Donations to the cause can be made at any Seeley Lake business under the Elyjah James Memorial Fund.

Contact Reporter Martin Kidston at 406-523-5260 or martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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