A chance encounter with a woman a decade ago saw hair salon owner Anna Furlong embark on a campaign to help Alopecia sufferers throughout Ireland.
Last week she had a hair-raising, fairytale moment when she was finally granted her wish when her Rapunzel Foundation charity was awarded charity status.
Anna's journey began over a decade ago. 'I met a woman had her daughter; both of them had Alopecia. She couldn't afford of any type of hairpiece. A lady had given me money in the salon (€100). I said sure I can get €3,000 for this and I did.'
Moved by the mother's efforts to raise money for a 6-year-old daughter, Anna got to work.
Marketing executive Paula Ronan came up with the Rapunzel Foundation name and the rest, as they say, is history.
Anna, who opened her salon on South Street 40 years ago last week, said; 'For the last four years we have been dealing with the charity regulators trying to get charity status, namely our charity number, so since we can fundraise.
'There are a lot of people out there with Alopecia. Unusually families are not supported by the HSE and they can't claim it on their health insurance - no matter what they are paying on their health insurance. For people who need a good quality hair piece; when patches can't hide gaps in your own hair or people who have Alopecia Totalis, they need hairpieces. There are different types of wigs and some people might need an artificial hairpiece. They can cost €500 and they may need two or three of them a year so it looks right for them.'
With longer hair girls need a hairpiece that can cost between €1,200 and €2,000 'and again they could get two or three times a year to keep it looking right'.
'I am dealing with a young girl who is going through secondary school who's getting one: Alopecia isn't rare but it's not overly common. I have gotten some for children aged five or six. Because they are not having treatment they wouldn't necessarily get the symptoms that other people would get. For some people with Alopecia they are looking at their hair never coming back. That means so much to their mental health that causes the trauma.
'There is a huge range of effects in confidence and lifestyle. If you are going through treatment once it finishes your hair will start to grow back again but if you lose your hair because of Alopecia you don't know if it's going to come back. I have dealt with it lately after 15 to 20 years her hair all came back. Another lady after 20 to 30 years her hair all came back. They don't know why there is no explanation for it.' Anna set out to collect hair in the early 2010s as there was a shortage of hair for wigs.
Every week up to 100 ponytails arrive at Anna's salon in envelopes from girls across Ireland. Many have raised some money through sponsorship cards. Measuring over 14in the ponytails go on to make a huge difference in people's lives.
The hair is sent to New Zealand where it raises money for the Rapunzel Foundation.
'Prosthetic hair is made by Freedom Wigs which suction onto the head. The ponytail has to be attached to the prosthetic piece so one or two inches are lost.
The wearer can go down to Hook Head on a blustery day or go swimming and it won't blow or fall off. That makes a huge difference to their lifestyle and self esteem. When I sent the first lot of hair ten or 12 years ago they rang me from New Zealand to say it was the best quality hair that they had ever received. I didn't realise but they actually paid for hair and all that money goes back to pay for wigs in Ireland. Hundreds of people across the country have benefited over the years across the country. It's not just the Freedom wigs.'
Having charitable status means now Anna and her salon team can organise fundraisers and seek sponsorship within the Irish and international hair industry.
'The donations would be in their thousands per year. At our salon we'd get up to 100 people a week sending in ponytails in sandwich bags inside envelopes. They send on their name and address and a little note.
'The difficulty we had is while we were waiting for the charity regulator to give us charity status. We couldn't interact with people until we got our charity number. Now we are going to fly because we can do everything; companies can sponsor us.
'I'm still trying to digest it at the minute and I have been contacted by the manager of a hair group and federations and councils so we will be getting a campaign together.'
Covid-19 posed challenges for Anna. 'Sometimes when people are getting their ponytail done they will get sponsorship. Because we couldn't fundraise for that and during the pandemic we couldn't post it to New Zealand. We had to DHL a huge shipment of five boxes to New Zealand last week. When they come back that will make a huge difference so we will be able to.'
There is a waiting list of ten for the Foundation currently due to the lack of funds this year. 'A lot of the wearers would be younger people and they like their hair at a certain length and styled and personalised, which we can do.'
The girl or boy can pick out three different hair colours which are blended for the final wig. Freedom pieces cost €3,000 and must be replace every one or two years.
'In adults they can last three to four years. I have a wig fitting service so when I was shaping a Freedom piece for.'
Independent TD Verona Murphy worked on behalf of Anna and the Rapunzel Foundation and helped them get the charity number within a fortnight.
'I went to see her on a Monday and the following week we had the number. At one stage I was wondering if I would keep going with it. She said they weren't ready to press the green button. All the work is done voluntarily here. A lot of people think the Rapunzel Foundation is a big organisation with people working out of an office. It's us, hair stylists in a salon.'
Step up Deborah O'Neill who handles correspondence, Emma Roche who replies and writes emails, Nuala Power, who oversees accounts, with Anna managing the organisation.
'Our expenses are very small: postcard stamps, cards and postage mainly.'
Anna and the team anticipate their charitable work will be getting busier over the coming months and years.
'Now we can get in the financial support we need. We have one girl who is trying to save and scrape and get her piece together for €900. This is going to make such a difference for people throughout Ireland with Alopecia. The Little Princess in the UK would support people in Ireland who are going through treatment. We have one or two people in the UK who we support as well.
'All those years ago when I set up this concept Little Princess invited me to the UK to present to a European convention about how we set up the foundation because it's such a simple concept and no other country has been able to get anything like it off the ground and that is a credit to the Irish people and their generosity: all those girls, who have gotten this off the ground.'
As a 12-year-old girl about to celebrate her Confirmation and the transition from primary into secondary school, Claire McGee longed to have hair for the first time in her life.
'When I was born I didn't have any hair,' Claire, now 19, said. Speaking from her Rathangan home, she said: 'I never had hair at all in my life. I went to play school and primary and wore bandanas. I wore a wig for my Communion but with my Confirmation and secondary school started my Mam Aileen looked into wigs.'
A cursory search online led her to hair stylist Anna Furlong's Rapunzel Foundation in nearby New Ross.
'Mam heard about the Freedom wig so I went to see Ann. It was very good and they were all very kind and lovely and made the experience easier for me.'
Claire was sent to Dublin to get her head measured and a cap was fitted which was sent to New Zealand.
'There was a ring with different coloured hair connected to it so I brought it into school and my classmates and I picked three different colours. It took a few months and I had it for my Confirmation. It took a little time getting used to putting it on correctly and getting the position right but I did get used to it very quickly.' Claire said she '100 per cent' recommends the Rapunzel Foundation to all children, saying it made a big difference in her life.
'I don't think my Mam would have gotten me into secondary school if I didn't have a Freedom wig. Obviously if you didn't have any hair I would have been a ball of nerves and I wouldn't have went because I was a teenager. I had three wigs during secondary school as my head was growing. Each time they'd measure your head and you'd be sent the new wig. I'm very appreciative as if it wasn't for the Rapunzel Foundation and the ponytails sent there we wouldn't have the funds. To get the wigs there would have been so much cost.'