Helping women ‘feel beautiful’ – one wig at a time

Joan Quinn is the volunteer Wig Boutique coordinator for CHD Cancer House of Hope in West Springfield. (The Westfield News)

WEST SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (The Westfield News) – Joan Quinn learned the art of making wigs in the 1960’s at her first job – Steiger’s in downtown Springfield – and that skill has been a blessing throughout her career and is now helping women battling cancer who have lost their hair.

On Monday morning, Quinn proudly showcased the Wig Boutique at the CHD Cancer House of Hope at 1999 Westfield St. which has had a makeover since Quinn began as volunteer Wig Boutique coordinator last year. “After talking with director Joe Kane I felt that I could contribute,” said Quinn, who also taught Cosmetology and Aesthetics for 26 years at Springfield Technical Community College. “There were quite a few wigs available, but it wasn’t the kind of environment that made a woman feel good about herself.”

Quinn created a vision for the room and turned to her “angels” – friends and businesses – who transformed the space into a tranquil, warm and inviting atmosphere. “I recruited volunteers, people with different talents and resources, to transform the room,” said Quinn. “I never thought I had a lot of friends but it turns out I do, and they’re my angels. Together we got the room painted, added shelving to display the wigs on model heads, and revamped lighting. We also raised money by selling plaques which purchased the needed materials, and Home Depot employees in West Springfield donated the labor, led by design coordinator Cyndi Marshall Gallant. It was their generous free labor that really made our boutique’s dream happen sooner.” Quinn’s goal for every “guest” who visits the Wig Boutique is to “feel beautiful” when they leave.

“A woman’s hair is such a personal thing,” said Kane. “Joan has been doing this kind of work for her whole career. She can tell by the shape of a woman’s face, the form of her features, and the shade of her skin what kind of wig will look, fit and feel right. And she really cares about every guest who comes in.” Quinn is joined by Jan D’Orazio, a former hairdresser, who brings a complementary skill set to the cause. Together they staff the Wig Boutique weekdays and by appointment. Quinn explained that wigs offered at the boutique – all free to women fighting a cancer diagnosis – are synthetic. Some wigs are donated by retailers from a line that has been discontinued, and many are donated by individuals.

“Sometimes wigs come back from a guest who is cured or in remission,” said Quinn. “Sometimes a wig is brought back if a guest dies, which is a sad event but also a cleansing experience for a surviving spouse or family member who can leave knowing that the wig can make a meaningful difference in the life of someone on their own journey with cancer.”

If a wig is being donated or returned, a “refreshing process” is done to ensure it is clean and sanitized.

“Cosmetology students at STCC now volunteer to perform the task for us,” said Quinn. “They learn a career skill and help a good cause.” In the past six months, close to 100 wigs have been provided to women, as well as hats and scarves. There are close to 60 wigs in a variety of styles on display at all times with more than 100 waiting to be draped on mannequins. The hairstyles are diverse and encompass all age ranges – from girls to those in their 90’s. Westfield resident Colleen Chevosky is one of the guests this spring who received a wig, hat and some scarves.

“On my first visit in February before surgery I felt very welcomed,” said Chevosky, who noted she has been “very open” about her breast cancer journey. “I didn’t think I would need a wig but when I went back in May I wanted to have one.” She is currently finishing up her chemotherapy appointments and will still undergo six weeks of radiation and further surgeries.

Chevosky enlisted her two children, ages five and eight, to join her at the Wig Boutique to help her pick out the right wig. “I wanted them to be more comfortable so I asked them to help me pick out a wig,” said Chevosky, noting they could then say, “I picked that out for Mommy.”

After Chevosky tried on several hair style options at her children’s urging, her son and daughter ultimately chose a hair style that was similar to what she had. “This is the new me – with no hair,” said Chevosky, adding that while she did take a wig, she wears the scarves most of the time.

Quinn recently launched a “Hang Cancer Out To Dry” clothesline campaign which travels to local salons each month and all money collected goes toward purchasing needed boutique items. In the coming months, Hairworks Salon on College Highway in Southwick will be one of the supporters of the cause.

“Our salon is very active supporting breast cancer causes,” said Paula Zering of Hairworks Salon, who also started volunteering at the Wig Boutique. “We have helped women shave their heads and tweak their wigs to fit more comfortably over the years. We rally together to help women.” Quinn explained that the Wig Boutique is not a hair salon. “We’re a boutique where a guest can look at various options and choose one or two that she likes best,” said Quinn. “When she walks out, you wouldn’t know she’s wearing a wig. She leaves feeling beautiful.”

Meghan O’Leary, a volunteer at the boutique who previously owned the salon, @round the corner on School Street in Westfield, echoed those sentiments. “I’ve had clients and friends diagnosed with breast cancer,” said O’Leary, noting that several she helped by shaving their heads. “I’ve had clients say they wouldn’t see me in six months because they were going to die. I can’t imagine what each woman is going through.”

O’Leary said she is donating her time at the Wig Boutique to wash and trim wigs, and pick up wig donations. She also works with several artists including Sabrina Garrity and Ruth Butler who bring their artistic talent to the boutique – including painting the styrofoam mannequins that grace the boutique shelves. “We’re like a friend who listens, provides emotional support, and promises we will find the right wig for you,” said O’Leary. Quinn concurred.

“A little piece of my heart goes with every guest who comes here,” said Quinn. Programs and services also offered at the Cancer House of Hope include Reiki, certified oncology massage therapy, yoga, breast prosthesis fittings, a Relaxation Group and a Breast Cancer Support Group. For more information, call (413) 733-1858 or visit www.chd.org.