Sitting in a stylist's chair in a Bloomington salon, 7-year-old Amelia Kuester appeared surprisingly calm, considering she was undergoing possibly the most important haircut of her life.
For one thing, the cut would leave her hair almost a foot shorter.
"My friends won't recognize me," she said, sounding not at all bothered by the prospect.
"We won't have to fight about brushing your hair," said her grandmother, Kathleen Melchior of Bloomington, who stood nearby, watching.
"My arms are too little to reach it," Amelia explained.
More important, the special haircut was the culmination of a project the Inver Grove Heights girl had been working on since she was 6 years old — to grow her hair long enough to donate to a company that makes wigs for children who have lost their hair, due mostly to cancer treatment or alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss on the scalp.
Amelia had seen images of children without hair, such as in advertising for the American Cancer Society. "I thought, 'What if that was me?' and I just felt so bad."
At 6, she could already imagine how hard it must be to look different from other kids.
As COVID ebbs, nonprofits that provide human-hair wigs free of charge, such as Locks of Love and Wigs for Kids, are hoping for a surge of hair donations from people like Amelia who have let theirs grow during the shutdown. Some also anticipate a surge in requests for hair from kids who haven't felt the need to wear hairpieces while staying at home.
Amelia planned for this donation more than a year ago, said her mother, Sara Kuester. The girl was due for a haircut when Kuester mentioned that some people donate long tresses.
"She was in, kind of hook, line and sinker — right when I told her that," Kuester said. "She said, 'Yup, that's what I want to do. I want to donate it to cancer.' "
Stylist Josie Sottosanti of Snips SpaSalon divided Amelia's flowing waist-length mane into sections and sliced 11 inches from each, trimming to just above the girl's shoulders. The six long, gently curling brown locks were tied separately and placed in a plastic bag to send.
"Oh, there's so much hair," said Sottosanti, who cuts hair for donations about a couple of times a year. "You're going to make someone very happy."
Madonna Coffman is all too aware of the pain inflicted by losing hair. Coffman, a cardiac nurse in West Palm Beach, Fla., was in her early 20s when she developed alopecia, a disorder in which the immune system attacks hair follicles and the hair falls out, temporarily or permanently. Going through that was tough, she said.
But then things got much worse.
"When my daughter lost her hair at the age of 4, I can tell you, as a parent, it was a lot harder."
Coffman's own hair has since grown back. Her daughter's hair grew back but then fell out again. She wore a bandanna from age 11 until she was a senior in high school. Her hair grew back again, but she lost it again at 20, and eight years later it has not grown back.
"I would gladly change places with her," Coffman said.
In 1998, Coffman founded Locks of Love, (locksoflove.org) the organization to which Amelia sent her hair. It's a nonprofit that provides human-hair wigs, free of charge, to young people ages 6 to 21.
Alopecia is more common than most people realize, probably because those who have it often cover it with hairpieces or wigs, Coffman said. It's the most common reason for hair loss among children who get donations from Locks of Love — more so than the more familiar hair loss due to cancer treatment, the other common reason children contact the organization.
Locks of Love has also helped children who lost their hair in fires or dog attacks and, in one case, a panther attack.
Coffman calls the finished hair product a "prosthesis," not a wig, because it's more individualized than a typical wig. It's produced using a mold of the child's head to form a perfect fit. Strands of matching hair donated by 10 to 12 people — adults can donate, too, as long as their hair has not been colored or chemically treated — are blended to make one prosthesis.
The underlying base is tinted to match the child's complexion, so when the hair is parted, the space between looks like scalp. And it's secured to the head with a vacuum seal, which can only be released by the wearer holding it at both temples simultaneously.
"They can go to sleepovers, go swimming and things like that," Coffman said. Ordinary wigs, on the other hand, "can't get wet, they can fall off, they can get pulled off on the school bus."
Which hints at some of the social trauma a kid without hair might endure.
"Think about it; it's not cool to go to school even with the wrong backpack or wrong jeans," Coffman said. "No kid wants to be the focus of attention because of something that's different." Even a small child's innocent question — "Why don't you have any hair?" — can sting. Deliberately cruel remarks by older children can leave long-lasting scars.
"When you're in the developmental phases of your life ... if you're being bullied or teased or ostracized for whatever reason, that determines what kind of adult you're going to be," she said.
Hair is a central element of people's identity — a "cute little blonde," for example, Coffman said. Consumers spend tens of billions a year to make their hair look good. If its loss is devastating for adults, "put that in the lap of a 10-year-old."
Health insurance policies do not cover the prostheses, considering hair loss "a cosmetic issue" regardless of its emotional effects. Locks of Love gets a wholesale price on the prostheses and relies on donations — of money as well as hair — to support the operation. But they're able to fill all requests, Coffman said.
Locks of Love, she added, replaces prostheses every few years until young people are 21, as heads grow or hairs get broken. Wigs for Kids, which caters to kids 3 to 18, also replaces wigs.
At the salon, Sottosanti styled Amelia's new shorter hairdo in soft waves. "I said goodbye to my hair" before the appointment, Amelia said.
"I'm super happy I have my hair short, " she said. "I think this is really pretty."
Afterward, Amelia stood outside the salon showing off the locks she would be donating. A passerby, Mary Kleven of Bloomington, was impressed. "This is just the sweetest thing I've ever seen."
"I've never been this popular!" Amelia said.
Her mother, who was at work that afternoon but checked in during the procedure on FaceTime, was happy as well.
"As a parent," Kuester said, "I just don't know how you get any prouder of kid."
Katy Read • 612-673-4583