For those battling serious illness, losing their hair may seem trivial by comparison. But it can crater the self-assurance everyone needs to venture out into the world, charitable wig-makers say.
To help these individuals, Madison Leone, 7, of Hicksville, recently had her hair cut at Zippity Doos Cuts for Kids in Roslyn Heights — which is donating half the price of its cuts to local wig charity Hair We Share — so that it can become a wig for someone else.
"I look like a different person," said Leone, admiring her new chin-length bob.
"You do look like a little different person and I love you," her mother, Erin, responded.
Madison is part of a growing group of Long Islanders — as well as people across the country — who are donating their hair amid the pandemic to charities that give free wigs to ill children and in some cases, adults.
Like so much else, wig-making was almost halted during the pandemic. Factories closed, manufacturing costs climbed and hair donations initially paused. But, the wig charities say, donations then starting rising.
Hair We Share co-founder Suzanne Chimera says her charity has grown more than 200% during the pandemic. In just one month, for instance, the group received 1,888 donations, she said.
"I think people were sitting at home feeling helpless, they wanted to do something to help," she said.
Chimera said she began Hair We Share because it was just too brutal telling parents of ill children how much wigs cost.
Wigs made from human hair can cost between $2,000 and $3,000, and as much as $6,000. Adding to the burden, they typically wear out after a year, fading and becoming brittle as the hair no longer gets the benefit of natural protective oils.
"It kind of killed me a little bit every time when someone came in who was sick and needed a wig, especially a child," Chimera said.
In 2014, Chimera persuaded her boss, Dean Raskin, the second-generation owner of Manny Roberts Hair Replacement, to co-found the nonprofit after the mother of a 4-year-old sent a photo showing what ocular cancer combined with chemotherapy had done to her daughter.
"And that was his moment, that was his ‘Aha,’ " Chimera said. "How can we take money from a family that is enduring that?"
Getting wigs swiftly to children, especially if their hair will soon fall out during chemotherapy, is often one of these charities' imperatives, so they typically need huge stockpiles.
"It's really important for us to get it to them as quickly as possible, but also [get them] exactly what they need, not just 'Here you go,' but that we match as closely as possible to what they want," said Christine Wong, whose mother founded Children with Hair Loss in South Rockwood, Michigan. "It's like stocking shoes, every size, every color."
Several charities give minors a new wig every year, and most ask donors to contribute what they can to the expense.
Hair We Share, for example, asks donors to raise $145 if possible.
The transformative impact of having a realistic wig is hard to overestimate — especially now, with so much of life occurring online, say advocates.
"In this day and age, it’s more than stepping out in the world, it’s Zoom and FaceTime," said Tom Greiner, administrative manager for Wigs for Kids in Westlake, Ohio. "We are constantly looking at images of each other, so it has escalated the importance of what we are doing, because of the fact that we spend so much time sending images around."
Wong recalled hearing from the mother of a teenage daughter stricken with alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss. The teen was depressed and reluctant to go to school.
In just one day, the charity sent her a wig and a complete styling kit. After receiving them, the daughter hid in the bathroom for an hour, Wong said.
"And when she came out, she was just beaming, and her mom said it really changed her life," Wong said. "Now, her daughter was ready to really go back out in public."
She added, "If we can make that impact on a child — that is so important. Just by giving them some hair, how many things they can accomplish in the world because they have confidence."
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT HAIR DONATIONS
- Most charities prefer donors to get professional haircuts, partly because the hair must be clean, separated into ponytails and completely dried.
- Donated hair should be at least 1 foot long.
- Some charities will accept dyed hair that is in good condition, but others will not. Check with the specific charity before donating.