Last year, getting a haircut seemed to be far from many people's minds. With salons closed as the pandemic took hold, men and women began to let their hair grow long. Now, as stay-at-home restrictions ease, some are looking to give back and help others as they return to hair salons for a new style.
At Hair We Share, a nonprofit that collects hair and monetary donations to support individuals affected by hair loss, they've received piles of ponytails on top of the ones they collected while wig factories were temporarily closed during the pandemic.
Suzanne Chimera, one of the co-founders of the Roslyn Heights, New York-based organization, told Kristen Dahlgren on Weekend TODAY that she estimated there were approximately 60,000 of them at the group's office thus far.
Dean Riskin, another co-founder of Hair We Share, put it another way. "I average anywhere between 75 and 100 ponytails a day."
According to Hair We Share, they've seen a 135% increase in hair donations. Other organizations across the country are seeing an uptick in donations too.
"As you might imagine, our hair donations decreased dramatically during 2020. As states began to re-open we have no doubt seen an increase," Madonna Coffman, president of Locks of Love, explained to TODAY in an email.
"As our recipients are needing to be back in society, the application requests are also increasing," Coffman added. "We're excited to continue our mission to provide the highest quality of hair replacements to as many children as possible who are living with medical hair loss."
Maggie Varney, founder and CEO of Maggie's Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan told TODAY in an email, "When something catastrophic happens in our world like it has with the pandemic, people want to do what they can to feel better and help others. Donating hair is one way they can give back, make a difference and have a positive impact. It’s a win-win!"
Varney estimates the number of hair donations her organization has received is up by 30%. "We received 17,700 hair donations to be made into wigs at no charge to Michigan children in need last year,” she wrote.
Hair We Share has received donations from across the country including Arizona, Minnesota, Pennsylvania Virginia and Texas. Astronaut Christina Koch even sent 11 inches of her hair to the organization from the International Space Station.
The minimum amount needed for a donation for Hair We Share is eight inches of hair. It takes seven to nine donations total to make a wig and many of the wigs go to kids in need.
Hair donations also come in from children like Olivia Lippmann, who had a very personal reason to donate.
"Since my mom had cancer, I decided it was a really nice thing to do," she said on Weekend TODAY. "Because my mom said one of the hardest parts was looking in the mirror and having no hair and thinking just about cancer."
Her mom Emilie said that for her, hair loss was a very emotional experience.
"You don't want to be different," she said. "You don't want to look different, or seem different, not outside in the world, not inside in your home."
While it's usually women and girls who receive and donate hair, Chimera said donations have been coming in from men as well, including from first-time donor Brian Cohen, who hadn't gotten a haircut since before the start of the pandemic. He got the idea to give back after his hair started growing past his ears.
"I kept going and I was, like, 'You know what? Why don't we do this thing?'" he said.
For recipients, it can be much more than hair. Pamela Barr of North Carolina, who has had both alopecia and breast cancer, told Weekend TODAY that receiving a custom wig helped people like her regain their confidence.
"I see myself as beautiful. I don't feel insecure anymore," she said about wearing her wig.
Antonino Cristiano, the owner of Head Rush Salon, which partners with Hair We Share, told Weekend TODAY, "Being able to see the recipient and putting a face to that person, it really hits home."
Wigs can often be expensive and cost prohibitive for many, including children. Some organizations donate wigs to cancer patients or those with alopecia and others like Hair We Share support a broader group, such as burn and motorcycle accident survivors and domestic violence survivors.
Sixteen months into the pandemic, Hair We Share is starting to play catch up and processing the high volume of hair donations they have. They're also recruiting volunteers to return to help.
For interested donors, Hair We Share also offers a tracking program that costs $145, the amount needed to process a wig. Donors would be able to see where their hair donation goes, and possibly even get to see a picture of their wig's recipient.