JOCELYNN BROWN

Handmade: Wigs 4 Kids making a difference for kids

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

All it took was a simple question from a brave 16-year-old girl to make a huge difference in her life, and others like her.

“What do you do when you’re a kid and you need a wig?” she asked Maggie Varney, who, 12 years ago, was fielding questions from individuals attending one of her classes at the Van Eslander Cancer Center in Grosse Pointe Woods, where she volunteers as a facilitator for the Look Good, Feel Better Program, sharing information on “how to deal with the appearance-related side affects” of cancer treatments.

Varney remarks, “I said, ‘Don’t you go to a wig salon and buy one?’ Even though I was a licensed cosmetologist, I didn’t sell wigs.” She recalls the girl’s response being, “No, because they’re old lady-looking and they don’t fit.” That made Varney realize children who suffer with hair loss had been overlooked in terms of having a suitable hair replacement – one styled appropriately for their age, level of activity and specific hair needs.

Varney had been sending hair to Locks of Love for 10 years, so she called the Florida-based charity to inquire about ordering a wig for a child with cancer, only to learn they didn’t exist, mainly because of production cost and the fact that there’s no funding available. Varney, a St. Clair Shores resident, says, “I hung up the phone and looked at my husband and said, ‘Something is wrong with this picture,’ and he said, “What are you going to do about it?’”

Uncertain about her next move, Varney, who’s certified to work with adult patients with cancer, convinced herself she could “certainly help a few kids.” Wigs 4 Kids was born right after that in 2003 with Varney as founder and CEO. She donated half the space of her 600-square-foot salon (Sohisti-Cutz) to the much-needed service. Supportive customers helped get things up and running during their hair appointments by stuffing envelops, doing data entry and making phone calls. A spaghetti dinner at $8 a plate had people lined up around the building to help raise funds at the charity’s first benefit.

Community interest and support quickly grew. Now in a 3,000-square-foot building, located just down the street from where it all began, Wigs 4 Kids, with over 300 volunteers and five workers, has been extremely successful at helping children suffering from hair loss caused by cancer-related illnesses or other conditions, like burns, alopecia and trichotillomania.

Each wig is made with human hair donated from all over the world. So far, this year alone, Wigs 4 Kids has received 10,000 hair donations that’s helping girls and boys of all ages. “Ten percent of our kids are boys. They don’t want to be bald either,” informs Varney. And, so far, the youngest child to receive a wig was 21/2.

With more than 40 years of experience in the beauty industry, Varney constructs all the molds for the caps, after deciding which type will work best with the child’s condition. She chooses from one of three constructions -- the lightweight medical wig with a monofilament top, a cellophane tape mold for children who still have hair, and a plaster mold used on children without any hair.

The mold is then sent to California, along with donated hair, documents and photographs of the child’s head, including one showing what their hair was like before they lost it, to help match the texture, color and density. There, the cap is made using dimensions of the mold. The hair and cap are then sent out of the country where each strand is hand-sewn into the cap. The wig is then sent to Wigs 4 Kids for Varney to style and customize it for the intended child. Parents pay nothing for the wig, which averages around $2,500-$3,000, and each child is “entitled to a replacement every year because their head size changes.” Varney notes, “Some have been part of the program for the entire 12 years.”

Depending on the construction, it takes either 5-6 weeks, or 8-10 weeks, for a wig to be completed. “But,” says Varney, “I do put them in a temporary (petite) synthetic wig. When a kid comes here they expect to leave with hair. One little girl walked out without a wig crying, and I said that would never happen again.”

For her hard work and dedication to such a worthy cause, Varney has received numerous community service awards, including being honored in 2009 by The Detroit News as a “Michiganian of the Year.” She says, “This was not my lifelong ambition to do this, (but) I believe God has entrusted me with this, and I can’t do it alone. It takes all of us.”

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, jbrown@detroitnews.com or facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade.

Contact Wigs 4 Kids (30126 Harper, St. Clair Shores) at (586) 772-6656 or wigs4kids.org.