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Business

Long Island moms make a living removing lice

Michelle Villella, right, a co-owner of Fairy LiceMothers

Michelle Villella, right, a co-owner of Fairy LiceMothers carefully performs a recheck for head lice on Jake Ourvan, 9, of Manhattan. Jake and his brother Kevin both were here for a follow-up visit after the Fairy Lice Mothers successfully removed lice. (October 2009) Photo Credit: Newsday / Ken Sawchuk

It was over dinner with their husbands - and after more than a few glasses of wine -- that three Oceanside mothers hatched their plan for a new business.

"It's amazing what a glass of Pinot Grigio can get you to do," Chris Bonanno, 41, said, remembering that night nearly two years ago.

"Or cabernet," said business partner Michelle Villella, 41.

So when Carol Gilbert, 40, suggested they invest in a new service, the wine had only a mild effect on their decision. The motivation was public need.

"We calm a lot of families with what we do," Bonanno said. Added Villella: "People come to us in tears and they leave grateful."

OK, here's their business. But first, as Gilbert answers when people ask what she does for a living -- "I'll tell them but only if they promise not to laugh." So, no snickering. No raised eyebrows.

The three are the Fairy LiceMothers. Since April 2008 they've combed through thousands of heads of hair, inspecting and removing head lice and nits (or eggs), first as a door-to-door service and then, since November, in an Oceanside treatment center.

The Fairy LiceMothers spray an organic enzyme on the hair to kill adult bugs, then meticulously comb through strands, manually picking out any lingering bugs and eggs.

Treatments often last about two hours, and an hourly rate is charged -- $150 for the first hour and $100 for each hour afterward. A head check is $25 and is deducted from the treatment cost if lice are found. The price also usually includes at least two follow-up visits.

"It's money well spent," said Jeff Ourvan, a Manhattan attorney whose three sons were head-lice victims recently after one shared a helmet at baseball camp. "Families go to pieces when this happens. My wife was in a panic." 

Get the eggs out
Marianna Kirikian, 45, of Oyster Bay and her two children, Flip, 9, and Gabriella, 7, used the Fairy LiceMothers last fall, after getting a prescription from her pediatrician.

"The prescription did kill the bugs, but it smelled terrible and the kids had to sleep with it," said Kirikian, who also needed treatment. She said the lice kept coming back because she was unable to get all the eggs out of her and her children's' hair.

The LiceMothers were able to pick out all the eggs, Kirikian said, and "explained what I had to do to get rid of them and keep them from coming back."

One competitor, Licebeaters, based in Roslyn, has been operating a door-to-door service since 1997, said one of its owners, Wendy Beck. Licebeaters, which is branching out with franchises, uses an all-natural olive oil treatment. The company charges a flat hourly rate of $250 per family, no matter the size. The fee includes the services of two technicians and any followup visits.

There is a stigma of "being unclean" associated with lice, the Fairy LiceMothers said. There are dozens of other myths - few of which are true. The state health department says head lice can come from direct contact with an infested individual or sharing of clothing and combs or brushes.

Bonanno and Villella each have three children, each of whom had head lice some time in 2007, first Bonanno's kids and then everyone in Villella's family.

"I was so embarrassed," Bonanno said. "I didn't tell anyone."

 When the idea was hatched
Only after Villella's family was hit did Bonanno tell her that she, too, had experienced the agony of pediculus humanus capitis, the minuscule parasite that lives by sucking blood from the human scalp.

While Bonanno's children went through months of over-the-counter products, Villella found an organic alternative from a Brooklyn service that worked. And that's how the vision of their business popped up over dinner.

Startup money totaled about $25,000, including $1,500 apiece for training at Shepherd's Institute for Lice Solutions in West Palm Beach, Fla.

They're on call 24 hours a day and can treat up to 15 clients daily, from as young as 10 months to as old as a Putnam County grandmother, 87.

And by now, the LiceMothers are used to all reactions about their work. Even from family.

"My son, who is in high school, is absolutely mortified," Bonanno said. "He doesn't want to be seen with me."

Villella said she gets a kick out of people who stop to read a company sign on her car door.

"Every time someone reads it," she said, "they end up scratching themselves."

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