City of Tonawanda Police Detective Joseph Scarpena has been a cop for 30 years. You might think he has seen it all. But he said he hasn't seen anything like this.
For the past five weeks, the entire 28-member police force has been given permission to break a department requirement that officers be clean-shaven.
The cops are going hairy for a cause.
They're raising money to help Scarpena's 3-year-old grandson, Ethan Ashcroft, who was very recently diagnosed with mitochondrial disease, a chronic incurable disease that strikes at the cellular level and may affect a variety of organs.
At the police station, you won't see any Chewbaccas or Duck Dynasty lookalikes on the force. The officers are trying to keep their beards well-trimmed. But in some cases, officers are showing a little more personality.
Scarpena said fellow Detective David Ljiljanich, who has been with him on the force for about 15 years, has one of the more unusual beards – growing it from ear to ear in a "chin curtain" style.
"I grew this in a few days," laughed Ljiljanich, who tossed out a few bearded women jokes, too.
"His is about the craziest you will find," said Scarpena. "He would do that just to be the funny guy."
"I wish it was a contest about how long you could grow your hair. I'd be a real hair-bag – with long hair down to my shoulders if they let me," said Scarpena. "My wife hates it."
Lucky for her so does the City of Tonawanda Police Department.
But for the fundraiser, each officer may kick in $50 if he wants to skip his morning shaving ritual. Officers are also getting pledged donations to raise money.
So far, officers have collected around $3,400 to help Ethan, the son of Scarpena's daughter Sara and her husband, Zachary Ashcroft. Lt. Scott Sheehan has raised the most, just under $2,000. In second place is City Court Judge Mark Saltarelli, who joined the officers in growing a beard.
The money will be used to help defray Ethan's medical costs. Ethan is the youngest of four, all under 8 years old.
"My dad took me and my mother to lunch to tell us what the department was doing and I just broke down and cried," said Sara Ashcroft.
She said the funds raised will help to pay for local genetic testing and also for travel to Atlanta to see a specialist.
"I'm still just finding out what this is," Scarpena said of mitochondrial disease. He said his grandson was diagnosed after he started having trouble breathing. The toddler is being treated as an outpatient at Women & Children's Hospital.
Sara Ashcroft said the disease is rare in children and they still don't know what the future holds.
"The first thing we noticed is he was late meeting milestones. He was having trouble with his muscles and was weak," said Sara Ashcroft. "About a year ago he had trouble breathing and had infections – his lung collapsed twice in the past eight months."
Ashcroft said she was born when her dad joined the force and she grew up with the officers on the force. Her older brother, Brian Scarpena, is also an officer in the City of Tonawanda Police Department.
"This shows you how the Police Department is basically a huge family," said Ashcroft.
Scarpena was humbled by the outpouring from fellow officers and members of the community. The community raised funds at a recent festival and the City of Tonawanda High School held a "Friday Hat Day," which allowed students to wear a hat to school if they brought in a donation. Fundraisers have also been held by members of the fire department and the department of public works.
"I'm not used to this. It's hard. I've never had to have anyone help us," Scarpena said of the fundraisers. "The guys have been real great. The whole city has been really good."
This is the second year that City of Tonawanda police officers have been allowed to grow beards to raise money.
Chief William Strassburg started the "Facial Hair Fundraiser" last year to raise $1,500 for the Vaillancourt family. Kim and Phil Vaillancourt had two biological children and had completed the three-year process to adopt three sisters at the end of 2015. Then Kim found out she was pregnant, but the joy and excitement was tempered with fear when just two days after the adoption was finalized doctors discovered Kim had two brain tumors. Both tumors were removed and she gave birth to a baby boy in April, but the cancer has since returned.
Common Council President Jenna Koch started a GoFundMe account to raise funds for medical and household expenses for the Vaillancourt family. The fund has raised more than $165,000 in the past 13 months.
Mayor Rick Davis praised the Police Department for stepping up to raise money for the Vaillancourt family last year and assisting one of its own this year.
He said this year he has opened up the Facial Hair Fundraiser to the public, asking members of the community to stop in to City Hall and donate. Community members may sponsor an officer or Saltarelli. Davis also offered to give a grand prize to the top fundraiser – lunch with the mayor.
"Our city has wonderful people that are always willing to step up and help one of our own," Davis said on Facebook. "Let's stand behind our officers and help this wonderful family."
Donations for Ethan Ashcroft may be dropped off at City Hall in the mayor's office or mailed to the office at 200 Niagara St., Tonawanda, NY 14150.