Real Life: Chop your hair and change a life
Getting your hair cut? The Rapunzel Foundation is looking for your locks
Stephanie Doyle, aged five and three quarters, had long blonde hair down to her knees.
Now someone else has it. "She had been asking for months if she could get her hair cut off," says Deborah Doyle, Stephanie's mother. "Her best friend has short hair and she wants to be like her. I was heartbroken, but we decided that if had to go then it wasn't going to end up on the cutting-room floor."
Deborah's research on hair donation in Ireland led her to the newly formed Rapunzel Foundation, a charity which is launching an appeal throughout Ireland asking people to donate 12 inches of hair. Their aim is to raise funds for human hair wigs for children who can't afford them. The charity is the brainchild of Anna Furlong, a hair salon owner from Wexford.
"The Rapunzel Foundation started by accident. I've had my own hair salon for a long time. A few years ago I started specialising in cutting wigs for people undergoing chemotherapy," recalls Anna. "Through that work I began to get to know people with alopecia."
Alopecia is the medical term for baldness or hair loss, a condition which can affect all ages and sexes. One day Anna was asked if she would cut and style wigs for two new clients.
"That evening I opened the door and saw two little girls of five and seven waiting for me. I suppose I had been expecting someone older. As a professional I couldn't let it show but I had a lump in my throat the whole time. I set up the Rapunzel Foundation after that day."
Back in their home town of Cavan, Deborah had to steel herself to see her daughter's ponytail chopped off. "I just kept telling myself it's going to a good cause."
Stephanie was delighted -- not just with her new haircut but with the knowledge that her hair was on its way to a new life without her.
"She thinks it's brilliant that her hair is going to live somewhere else."
It's impossible to trace exactly where Stephanie's hair is going to end up, but it might be in Wexford on the head of Caitlin Kehoe, one of the little girls who inspired Anna Furlong.
Born with a full head of hair which subsequently fell out, Caitlin's hair had not grown back by her first birthday.
"Our doctor referred us to a specialist and that was when we discovered that Caitlin has a permanent form of alopecia. Her hair will never grow back," recounts Caitlin's mother, Caroline Kehoe.
Caroline found the news extremely upsetting. "My mind raced forward to school: how would she fit in, what about boys, her first disco? But once I got over that stage, I focused on what we were going to do next."
After experimenting with hats and bandanas Caroline began to look into wigs, but this proved traumatic.
"We had terrible wig experiences. Caitlin would come running out of school with these big bushy things on her head and people would be looking at her. She was beginning to pick up on my stress."
With little or no information available on the topic, it took Caroline several years to discover the perfect wig. But when she did it changed everything. It came all the way from New Zealand, from a company called Freedom Hair.
Freedom Hair make a particular type of wig called a vacuum wig. Made using untreated human hair, vacuum wigs are attached to the head by a silicone cap which is tinted to match the wearer's skin colour.
Thanks to an advanced hair implantation method the end result is a wig that is practically impossible to spot as such and -- perhaps even more importantly -- one which will stay in place no matter what.
The day Caitlin got her Freedom Wig was an incredible one for the Kehoe family.
"I can't describe how amazing it was. It was like a tonne of bricks was lifted off my shoulders. You absolutely wouldn't know it was a wig, it fits perfectly. The hair is so soft and such good quality.
"Other wigs are made with too much hair so they look weird. This looks completely real. Caitlin can swim, do gymnastics, use a GHD and have pigtails. No one believes it's a wig. It transformed our lives overnight."
But such freedom doesn't come cheap. Any specialist wig will require between 15 to 25 ponytails of untreated human hair.
"Good quality wigs can cost anywhere from €2,000-€3,000," explains Anna. "An adult might get up to five years out of a piece whereas a child could need up to two a year. "While subsidies exist in some countries, in Ireland the medical card allows only on average €440 per annum for hairpieces."
This is where the Rapunzel Foundation come in. They collect the donated hair and send it to Freedom Hair in New Zealand. In exchange the company donate money back to the foundation, which they then use towards the purchase of wigs for children who need them.
There is another reason why Irish hair donations are needed. "The extension market has taken real hair away from necessity wearers," explains Caroline Kehoe. "There simply hasn't been any hair available to us." This means wig companies are looking for Irish hair.
Anna agrees. "For example Freedom Hair is delighted with the appeal because Irish hair is a very specific colour. The donations from Irish people mean that they will now be more able to meet the demands for wigs for Irish clients."
The problem is that while plenty of people are getting their hair cut every day in Ireland, very few know about the possibility of donation and even fewer are aware of alopecia. Audrey O'Hara, rep for Freedom Wigs, who also has alopecia, explains why.
"Up till now we were underground. Irish people with alopecia never featured in the media, we were literally hiding behind our baldness.
"But, thanks to the television appearances and press coverage started by people like Anna Furlong and Liz Shiel (Founder of Alopecia Support Ireland), things are changing. We are very grateful for that."
Audrey still finds it difficult to explain just what donating hair means to a person with alopecia.
"It changes everything. You can walk down the road and not think about baldness, you don't have to worry if Mary in the office knows. It lifts a load of worry and concern from off your shoulders."
So if you or your child has long locks like Stephanie Doyle and you're considering chopping them off for 2011 then why not pass them on? You never know -- your hair might just end up living down the road.
Health & Living