Philly wig shop looks to connect hair donors with patients

     (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    “My life is defined by my hair,” says Erica Matos, 27, in the living room of a friend recruited to straighten the mass of black curls sprouting in every direction from Matos’ head. Although she hasn’t bothered to straighten her hair since college, Matos needs to measure the length of her longest layers to create a wig for a cancer patient in need.

    Five years ago, Matos lost her father to cancer. He didn’t lose his hair, but Matos says that donating her hair will quell the helplessness she still feels when she thinks about his passing.

    “Afro puff” and “Chia pet” were just a few of the names Matos was called growing up in Laredo, Texas. “Nobody looked like me,” Matos says. For years, she chemically relaxed her hair. Then every day, polished it with a straightener.

    Now, Matos has grown into her hair. She feels her hair fits her personality. “It’s kind of weird and cooky and out there!”

    After a haircut at American Mortals Salon in Center City Philadelphia, Matos takes her hair to the Lois A. Wig & Hair Boutique in South Philadelphia.

    Owner Lois Arnold, a retired hair stylist, opened the wig shop in 2009. She sells wigs for all occasions, but her passion is servicing women experiencing hair loss due to illness.

    Arnold has lost aunts, cousins and her grandmother to cancer. She said that women who lose their hair feel “outed” and believe that no wig will make them look like themselves again.

    Arnold adds that when a woman walks into her store, it is her responsibility to “hold their dignity” — and to fit them with the most natural-looking wig possible. “They thank me, but I can’t express the feeling I get, what it does for me,” she says.

    “By donating your hair, you are really aiding in someone’s healing process,” Arnold tells Matos as she lays out two ponytails of 13 inches of Erica’s straight hair on the counter. “This is how we give back.”

    Arnold has a unique vision for hair donation that connects the patient with the donor. She is in the process of setting up an online site where patients can browse photos of donors, have a wig made from the hair of their choice, and then contact and thank the donors personally.

    Erica writes down her phone number and email address on card, with a message: “Enjoy the hairica, it’s got a lot of spunk!”

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