There she sits, this drop-dead beautiful woman.
The first thing you notice is her hair. It’s not there. She wears a cap. And somehow on Cari Bickley, bald becomes both chic and normal.
Does she have cancer? No.
Bickley has answered the question so many times, her friends joke about it.
“She’s not a chemo victim. But she sure gets a lot of false sympathy,” teases Colleen Warren, a fellow volunteer at Ponderosa Elementary School.
Bickley, 34, lost her hair after her third child, Nick, was born. The hair loss is permanent. It’s from a disease called alopecia. “If this is the worst life throws at me, I’ll be OK,” she said.
Wigs made her feel like she was covering up the real Cari, so she wears hats. At last count, she had 22. “I just weeded them out. My shelf was getting too full.”
Her family supported her decision to go bald, especially her husband, Rick. He works for a small firearms company.
As she talked, Bickley sat at a Power Mac in the workroom at Ponderosa, typing recipes for a fourth-grade Mother’s Day project.
Tuesday is her almost sacred volunteer day at school. It’s hard to say who values her time at school more: Bickley or the teachers.
Bickley loves the window it gives her into her children’s lives.
“Nothing is going to get in the way of my volunteering - it’s that important, just so rewarding.”
Teachers and other parents at Ponderosa respect Bickley for her creativity, her contagious smile and her willingness to slog through any project. “It’s almost like she walks on water,” said one teacher.
Bickley’s other gift, in an arena where many parents worry that their candor will haunt their children, is the courage to criticize and the skill to criticize constructively.
Her causes include these:
She objects to the amount of homework she sees assigned.
Bickley works with teenagers in her church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A few teens sometimes miss the once-aweek activities because they’re bogged down with homework, she says. Even her oldest child, Danielle, 11, gets at least an hour homework a night - more than Bickley likes. Add on activities like dance or music lessons, and the pressure builds.
“Consequently, and this is my thing, they’ve lost their childhood,” Bickley said.
Bickley wants to see more playground equipment and a different philosophy at work on the playground at Ponderosa. Current playground supervision is static and custodial, she charges.
“I got in trouble for playing Red Rover with the kids,” she said. “The kids glom onto me at recess time. They say, ‘Hey, this lady likes me.”’ Ponderosa Principal Karen Toreson said that staff members are looking at playground alternatives and programs.
Making sure the school knows her and her values.
When Dani first started in school, Bickley got an invitation to “back to school” night. “I called my sister-in-law to ask if this was important. The answer was: ‘The more they see your face, the better off your kids are going to be.”’ The more she is in the school, she believes, the better teachers will understand her children, “because I can give them the insight they need in times of crisis.”
And, of course, volunteering.
“I’ll do anything. Teachers need to concentrate on the bigger stuff. They are busy doing wonderful things for your children.”
Last week, Bickley spent much of Tuesday punching in 45 recipes ranging from a complicated Ultimate Cheesecake to a sticky-sweet Puppy Chow.
“I will type these as written,” she said, eyeing a well-handled, pencil-written recipe.
She and other volunteer moms bantered back and forth, in a camaraderie that Bickley loves. “It’s what keeps me coming back,” she said.
Reading another recipe, she asked “What’s feta cheese?” The ensuing teasing ends up in laughter. “Mormons don’t do feta cheese,” someone said. Bickley, herself, jumped in with the next Mormon joke.
Big projects don’t daunt her, either. She made 167 costumes for a first- and second-grade musical production in March, soliciting donated supplies for the whole project. “She just goes for it,” said Ellen Briggs, a first-grade teacher.
With Nick, Kyle and Dani in first, third and fifth grades, Bickley’s volunteer work is mostly for their classes.
“I would pay to have Cari’s child in my class next year,” said fourth-grade teacher Joan Greiner.
Last month, Bickley won one of five Exemplary Parent Involvement Awards at a regional conference for reading specialists and parents. “There are so many parents involved, I was surprised and humbled to be nominated,” she said. “I’m so new at all this.”
The judges found that Bickley’s volunteer experience fit all their criteria. “Some (nominees) had one or two areas of excellence. Hers was just overwhelming,” said Spokane educator and judge Carol Olsen.
Bickley’s youngest son needed extra help for reading, starting Bickley’s involvement with the Primary Intervention Program. Ponderosa reading specialist Cathy Weaver, who worked with Nick, said she nominated Bickley because of her volunteer work at school, combined with her support for reading at home.
Fifth-grade teacher Jill Skipworth said Bickley sometimes connects with some kids in her class better than Skipworth herself does. Last week, Bickley taught the minuet to 16 in Skipworth’s class. They learned, they laughed, they danced.
Bickley nearly grew up in her mom’s dance studio. Her first job after high school graduation was as a showgirl at the MGM Grand casino in Reno. “Three days later, there I was, a green 18.”
Her mother, Carol Grover, said letting Cari go to Reno was a tough decision for her and Cari’s father. “But we had faith that she had enough strength to withstand the temptations. And she proved us right,” Grover said.
Cari danced on stage for a year, then came home. She’d had enough. “There were no morals, no standards. I knew that was not the lifestyle for me.”
That ability to see clearly into her own heart may be what lets her connect so well with others. Bickley told of going into a class at Mead Junior High School, wearing her wig.
She talked with girls there about issues such as peer pressure.
“I asked ‘How do you become accepted?’ It’s amazing what they will tell you. And I asked, if they were parents, what would they want for their children?”
To be pretty or popular or have a lot of material things, came the answers.
“Then I take my hair off and tell them, ‘You will change. You will not always be young and pretty. It’s who you are inside that counts.”’
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (1 Color)