Sitting in the hairdresser’s chair, staring at her nervous reflection, Leanne D’Abreo was having second thoughts. She was about to have her waist-length hair cut short, but not because she was sick of styling her glossy black locks, or because she wanted a new look. Leanne, 15, loved her hair, which she had never had cut before and was justifiably proud of, but she had made up her mind to cut it off to donate it to children who didn’t have any of their own.
The student of Our Own English High School, Dubai, she had agreed to have her hair chopped for the charity Hair for Hope. The organisation collects hair from volunteers to make wigs for children and adults who have lost theirs during chemotherapy. “It’s difficult parting with anything you love, especially your hair,” she says, “But I wanted to do it for cancer sufferers.’’ So with an almost reluctant nod of her head, Leanne gave the hairdresser the go-ahead.
There was a look of uncertainly on her face, as 25 centimetres of her hair were snipped, but when she saw the hair go into the zip-lock bag, where they would be preserved until they could be used in a wig, she smiled. “When you know that it’s for a good cause, it makes you feel good inside,” she says.
This is exactly the reason Lola Lopez, founder of Volunteers in Dubai, launched Hair for Hope UAE in October 2011. “I am always asked if there is a personal reason why I run all these projects, and the answer is ‘no’,” she tells Friday. “Do I have to be challenged by a personal experience to do this? Nobody in my family has suffered from cancer and undergone chemotherapy. It’s just that I care. I care about people. That person suffering could be me. If I had a mastectomy and lost my hair, I would hope somebody would care, especially in a city like Dubai where not everybody has a family.
“If you are suffering from the unpleasant surprise and trauma of having discovered your condition and there’s nobody around to say ‘I care about you’, it can be terrible.” Leanne wanted to help cancer patients who needed a wig, but perhaps couldn’t afford to buy one, which led to Hair for Hope. “I didn’t come up with this idea,” she admits. “It’s been in America and many other countries – I picked it up from there. But no one’s done it here, so I thought ‘why not?’”
Give it a go
Initially, Lola was not too confident about this project. “I was concerned that it wouldn’t be as much of a success as some of the other projects that we’ve done, such as providing food packets and gifts for workers,” she says. “In this part of the world, women who have long hair like to keep it that way.”
However, Lola decided to give it a go, because she’d seen the emotional trauma of losing one’s hair – a devastating side effect of chemotherapy – through friends with cancer. Using only word of mouth at first, she sought volunteers in the city to donate their locks, organising a cutting session at a salon in Emirates Towers. “About 60 women turned up,” says Lola. “I was overwhelmed – I hadn’t expected so many.”
Last year, Hair cbunches of hair – it takes around 15 to make a wig, depending on the quality and length of the hair – to Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths cancer rehabilitation programme in the US. “They’ve made over 18,000 wigs so far, so it seemed the best thing to send it to them,” says Lola.
This time, Lola has decided to get the wigs made in the UAE, with the help of some volunteers. “I have no objection to helping any women or children with cancer anywhere, but if there are patients who require them right here, we should be giving it to them, right?
“There are women here who need them, and the wigs are extremely expensive. This year we’ve decided to keep the hair with us until we exhaust all options of finding a wigmaker.” The problem is finding a wigmaker who will participate in the project voluntarily. “Also, we’ll need 100 donations of hair before we find 15 that will suit the same wig,” she says.
There are certain conditions for the hair to be accepted. Hair that is dyed or chemically treated cannot be used in a wig. “A lot of people ask me why I haven’t donated my hair,” says Lola. “It’s because I dye my hair and chemically treated hair cannot be used to make wigs. “Everybody’s hair is different – colours vary, so its difficult to match,” says Lola. “Once the hairs are put together in a wig, it is dyed a uniform colour. If some bunches already have treated hair, the colour will be uneven.”
That’s why most of the 41 donors who turned up at NStyle salon at the DIFC in
Dubai last November were children and teenagers. Four-year-old Julia – who
donated 25 centimetres of hair – was the youngest. Tahira Muzaffar Ali, 13, who donated almost 60 centimetres of hair, had grown hers for a year specifically to donate it to the cause. She’d heard of a boy who was doing the same, and that inspired her. “I thought if boys can do it, why can’t girls?” she says.
Samurdhi Edirisuriya, a 17-year-old student at Emirates International School, decided to donate after reading about the cause. “My aunt had breast cancer about six years ago and she wore a wig,” she says. “She’s recovered now, but I remember how difficult it was for her.”
Samurdhi wanted to donate during the first drive in 2011, but it took time to convince her parents. “My mum was fine with it, but my dad took a little bit more convincing. I didn’t want to upset him. He was sad, as I haven’t cut my hair since I was a little girl. He likes to see me with long hair. I told him it would grow back!”
For nine-year-old Israa Rehan, her hair was “as precious as gold,” but donating 40 centimetres of it to make others happy was equally important. “It will help someone who’s lost their hair to cancer,” says the little girl.
What all of them would like to see is their hair adorning women who need it in the UAE, but the problem, according to Lola, is the high cost involved in making the wigs. “I’ve spoken to wigmakers in the UK, and they want a huge amount of money – 5,000 pounds (Dh30,000) for a custom-made wig, which would make this project unfeasible,” she says. “But it’s doable. I am determined to get it done here.”
Lola is in touch with Illumin8, a beauty school in Dubai with a wig-making section. There’s a possibility that they will be able to get wigmakers to teach people to make wigs. “It would be lovely if, at the end of the campaign, we actually make the wig here and deliver it to somebody who needs it,” she says. “People can see where their hair went, and who they actually helped.
“Our pledge is to exhaust all avenues of getting the wigs made here before we give up. But we can’t leave it too long either, or the hair will start deteriorating. Six months is the maximum we can keep it in zip-lock bags.”
Whatever happens, Hair for Hope is here to stay. There will be week-long donations scheduled in May, August and November 2013, when donors can go to eight NStyle salons, from Sharjah to Abu Dhabi, to donate their hair and get it styled as a gift.
But for the donors, the real gift is the knowledge that they have given to someone in need. “Now I feel good – really happy that I can make a difference in somebody’s life,” says Samurdhi. “And I like my new look too. I think I’ll grow it, then maybe cut it again!”