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Helping people heal

Local hair stylist works with community to give wigs to people who need them

Lillian Lee hugs a girl who was able to get a wig just like her doll’s. (Photos by LILLIAN LEE)
Lillian Lee hugs a girl who was able to get a wig just like her doll’s. (Photos by LILLIAN LEE)

Lillian Lee wears many hats as a talented hair and wig stylist.

When I entered the Lillian Lee Salon in Bergenfield for the first time, more than 10 years ago, it was clear that Lillian was the person in charge. Standing center stage, smack in the middle of the salon, she was in multitasking mode. Lillian was merrily mixing and applying hair dye onto a customer’s hair, and like a maestro she was conducting an animated three-way conversation as well. Lillian has been gifted an infectious laugh and a commanding voice. So it was easy to hear snippets of that discussion on the leather couch from where I was perched in the reception area.

“You know it’s a little slow in here during the three weeks, and especially during the nine days,” she said. She also peppered the conversation with a few “baruch haShems” and a smattering of sheitel references. (A sheitel is a wig.)

With her gregarious, warm nature, Lillian can relate to diverse people and cultures. She’s of Hispanic descent and says that when they first meet her, many of her Jewish clients think she is a Sephardi Jew. Lillian is comfortable with Jewish traditions and culture, and with Orthodox practices. She has even traveled to Israel, where people approached her and spoke to her in Hebrew, mistaking her for an Israeli.

Lillian has celebrated semachot — celebrations — and milestones with many of her clients, who often have become dear friends.

And she also has cried together with them from sorrow and painful losses.

 

These two girls came through chemotherapy and were able to chose wigs they love, with Lillian’s help. (LILLIAN LEE)

Of the many professional hats Lillian wears with love, Do Wonders is one she absolutely treasures. Do Wonders is a non-profit charity organization that was formed to donate lightly used wigs to women and children with cancer. The Lillian Lee Salon cuts and styles wigs to suit the recipients, at no cost to them.

After being Lillian’s client for so many years, I wanted to learn more about the origin of Do Wonders, so we finally found some quiet time away from the salon and talked about it.

“When you have a client sitting in your salon chair, you have a chance to give them a gift of beauty and joy,” Lillian said. “So many women are lonely, living alone, and not touched in any way. Stylists have the power to transform with touch and give such happiness and joy.”

Lillian is extremely proud of her own family, and she attributes her special mama with raising her with a strong work and communal ethic. “Mom often said, when I was growing up — if you were born with a skill and talent, use it to help others. If you are a great cook, make a great meal for your neighbor. Make a difference in the world.”

Lillian took that advice to heart, and she uses her skills to help others to make that difference.

“After working with the community for so many years, some of my clients were diagnosed with cancer and had lost their hair from the chemotherapy treatments,” she said. “I already had several wigs in the salon, and began fitting my clients with them.

“Through the grapevine, people heard what I was doing with the wigs for women in these circumstances.”

Then it all came together when several women from the Teaneck Orthodox Jewish community came forward and volunteered to help grow this endeavor by designating drop off areas for more lightly used wigs.

“Within two weeks I had accumulated 100 wigs, and I couldn’t have done it without these women from the Teaneck Orthodox community,” Lillian said.

They also came up with a name that says it all so well. “Do Wonders.”

“When people schedule an appointment for a wig because of hair loss from chemotherapy, I ask for a picture of a favorite hair style and color,” Lillian said. “Then I prepare three different choices of wigs imitating that picture.”

Hair loss often feels like the loss of a vital part of a woman’s sense of femininity. The women who are undergoing chemotherapy often arrive for their appointments with a palpable sense of sadness. After they modeling the wigs and find the perfect match, their mood often transforms immediately. “They’re smiling, taking selfies, and they leave the salon with their heads held high,” Lillian said.

When their chemotherapy treatments are completed, Lillian continues to help blend in newly grown natural hair.

When the process is over, many of the survivors want to give back and make a difference for others. They attend the annual Do Wonders fundraisers, share their experiences there, donate their old wigs, and do the organization’s administrative work. “Lillian, I’ll do whatever you want,” the volunteers often declare. As if to say, you were there for us, now we are here for you.

The Lillian Lee Salon fully reopened in the summer and abides by all CDC requirements and protections. Because of Do Wonder’s clients’ needs and their desire for privacy and confidentiality, Lillian continues to schedule special days and hours, and the use of a private room. Nowadays, she often receives referrals from hospitals and has the support of Sharsheret, the Teaneck-based advocacy group for Jewish women battling cancer and their families.

This year the fundraiser for Do Wonders will be different from earlier ones. Instead of the usual venue, there will be a Wall of Generosity in the Lillian Lee Salon. Donations from one dollar upward will be posted on the walls. Clients can bring donations to the salon when they receive services, or people can donate on the Do Wonder site, DoWonderscharity.org. The fundraiser will run from September through October.

“Our goal is to fully cover all the salon walls with donations,” Lillian said.

We each have an opportunity to do our own wonders and make that beautiful difference.

Esther Kook lives in Teaneck. She is a reading specialist, language arts teacher, and freelance writer.

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