Publshed in the September 17, 2007 edition of the Ventura County Star
“The Gift of the Magi” is an O. Henry short story in which an impoverished husband and wife each sacrifice a prized possession in order to procure a Christmas gift for the other---with ironic results. Della sells her lustrous chestnut tresses to buy James an elegant platinum watch fob. James pawns his treasured timepiece to purchase jeweled combs for Della’s formerly down-to-there hair.
Altruism, on a “Gift-of-the-Magi” order, is alive and well across the fruited plain. For one, thousands of Americans are shearing and sharing their own luxuriant locks with women and children, glabrous, courtesy of chemotherapy.
Not only do one in three American women contract cancer but the dreaded disease remains the No. 1 killer of children. Recent polls show that hair loss is feared more than any other side effect of the Big C.
Three U.S. non-profits are issuing a call vaguely reminiscent of the ‘60s: “Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair.”
Locks of Love, synonymous with hair donation due to massive media exposure, (The Today Show, Entertainment Tonight, Oprah, 20/20, USA Today, Redbook, People, and Seventeen) claims to be overwhelmed by 2,000 coils of curls per week. Generally, it takes from six to ten hanks of hair to create a single hairpiece.
Teams of publicists who stage cutting fests and celebrity contributors such as Hillary Swank and Diane Lane have inspired 18,000 men and women to nurture and lop off pony tails (at least 8 inches long) which they post to Pantene Beautiful Lengths. Finished wigs (2,000 to date) are distributed free of charge (retail value: $3,500 to $6,000) by the American Cancer Society.
Jeffrey Paul started Wigs for Kids 28 years ago after being asked to design an artificial “crown of glory” for a special cancer patient---his niece. Today, his Ohio-based organization not only receives between 600 to 800 contributions each month but manages to create more than 100 personalized wigs each year.
Los Angeles resident Patricia Kenny, who lost her mother-in-law to cancer, is typical of the adult benefactor. Speaking from the Pantene website, she writes, “If by donating my hair, I am able to give one person a moment in their life where they can forget they are fighting a deadly disease, then I know that it was all worth it.”
Locks of Love estimates 80 percent of their patrons are children wanting to help other children. Ironically, 9-year-old Taylor Wilhite bestowed her own braid only a year before she was diagnosed with leukemia. She’s doing well now after the bone marrow transplant and says her donated ‘do allows her to hold her follicle-challenged head up high.
Yet just as Christmas wasn’t exactly what Della and James had envisioned, some who feel called to allot their mops to cancer tots are disappointed as well.
Although the fact that Locks of Love and Wigs for Kids largely distribute hairpieces to bald alopecia areata victims is disclosed upfront, Michigan salon owner, Maggie Varney was so upset that youngsters with cancer weren’t receiving the hair she collected, she founded Wigs 4 Kids. Although her nonprofit only receives a few dozen donations a month, she’s proud to say every hairpiece goes to a child with cancer.
Some are disillusioned to learn that donated ponytails end up being relegated to the trash. Locks of Love throws away close to 80 percent because, although each charity publishes stringent guidelines, impatient benefactors fail to inform themselves of restrictions and submit hair that is too gray, too dirty, too processed, or too short.
When New York Giant R. W. McQuarters donated his dreadlocks to Locks of Love, he didn’t realize his distressed tresses wouldn’t pass muster. “I’d rather them send back the hair,” he told the New York Times. “I could have sold them on eBay and then taken the cash and given it to charity.”
Some are frustrated to find out that their locks have been sold at market price to commercial wig makers. In fact, all three of the charities sell usable short and gray hair to defray costs or to fund research. According to tax returns made available online, Locks of Love realized $1.9 million from hair sales during 2001 to 2006.
Yet Della and James did not allow themselves to be thwarted by dashed dreams---they simply put their gifts away for a later day.
Don’t forget “The Gift of the Magi” ends this way: “And here I have told you the story of two young people who most unwisely gave for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days, let it be said that of all who give gifts, these two were the wisest.”
Because isn’t it the thought that counts?