x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Pupils rally behind Dubai teacher by donating hair to charity

After a Dubai teacher learnt she had breast cancer, almost 30 women and students joined her to cut off their hair for a charity that makes wigs for sick children.

Lisa Gwilliam, a teacher at Jumeirah Primary school in Duabi, waits to get her hair cut off at the beginning of the school day. She was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer just as school resumed. Razan Alzayani / The National
Lisa Gwilliam, a teacher at Jumeirah Primary school in Duabi, waits to get her hair cut off at the beginning of the school day. She was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer just as school resumed. Razan Alzayani / The National

For most women, having all their hair chopped off would be rather traumatic. But when 27 women and girls opted to lop off their locks in a group session at a Jumeirah school this week, the mood was celebratory rather than anguished.

Part of the reason is because the hair is being sent to Locks of Love, a United States-based charity that will use it to create wigs for children who have lost their own hair through illness.

But the main reason was that the mass cutting was an act of solidarity with Jumeirah Primary School’s Year Five teacher Lisa Gwilliam, who was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer as school resumed.

Ms Gwilliam describes the session at the school on Sunday morning as humbling.

“The day had a really nice feel to it,” she says. “It went really, really well. We expected 18 people and we got 27 – I literally have a carrier bag full of hair in ponytails.”

There is a possibility that more hair will be collected because a few more students saw what was happening at the school and were keen to join in.

Once their parents have agreed, their hair will be added to the collection bound for Locks of Love.

The event was also used to raise money for a local charity, Breast Cancer Arabia.

One of the students who had her hair cut, nine-year-old Makayla Oberg, says she lost about 40 centimetres in length.

“I did it because my friend said she was going to do it. She decided later she wasn’t going to but I did it anyway,” she says.

“It feels weird. It actually felt really cool because I’ve never had short hair before, but it was also weird because I could feel them cutting it off.

“Others were smiling as they had their hair cut off. They were like,  ‘OK, my hair is really short now’.

“It’s easier. I might keep it like this for a while then I might grow it again.”

A few women went further than just having their hair cut off for Locks of Love – they also shaved their heads as an act of solidarity with Ms Gwilliam.

One was Ruth Mason, the learning support assistant who works in Ms Gwilliam’s classroom.

She and her 12-year-old daughter Abigail both had about 30cm of hair cut off for Locks of Love, then each had it cut even shorter.

“We both have a No 2 cut at the back and maybe No 3 on top,” Ms Mason says. “I did it partly for Lisa and also because I lost a really good friend, Janet, to breast cancer at the start of the year. It was in her memory, too.

“I felt gutted that maybe I hadn’t done it for Janet when she was going through her treatment.

“It brings back the memory. It was a very emotional and personal thing to do.

“I didn’t cry [when the hair was cut] but I had very sweaty palms. My hair was done in 15 to 20 tiny ponytails and I could feel the scissors against my skull as they were cut off.

“That’s when the reality struck me that I was going that short. How does it feel? Naked. I made a very public statement, going from having hair past my shoulders to being completely bare now.

“People have been very kind and complimentary, telling me it makes me look young. I’ll keep it short for as long as Lisa doesn’t have hair. That’s my plan.

“These are things you can do to help so people know they are not alone.”

Ms Mason says no one expected so many people to volunteer to get their hair cut off, especially 50 per cent more women than they had anticipated.

“The children took on the reasons for doing it. They were definitely doing it because they wanted their hair to be worn by another child,” she says.

“I think we also raised between Dh15,000 to Dh20,000. It means we’ll be able to cover the cost of others who are getting treatment.”

Ms Gwilliam, who turned 40 the day before the Locks of Love session, says the “fantastic” support from the school community showed her that there were many positives following her diagnosis.

Her hair had begun falling out a few days before the scheduled hair collection day – a side effect of her first chemotherapy treatments.

She wore a scarf to ensure as much hair as possible remained in place until Sunday.

“The people who were getting their hair cut off were fine but some of those watching were weepy,” she says. “Mums were crying when their daughters’ hair was cut off. I had a little cry when the last of my hair was shaved off.”

Ms Gwilliam’s diagnosis came shortly after she returned to the UAE from an extended break in Canada, where she was helping to look after a terminally ill friend who suffers from Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

“Over the last four years, my life has been like a Bollywood movie,” Ms Gwilliam says. “I keep expecting little Indian dancers to appear and run across my living room.

“My motto is, ‘suck it up princess’. I work every day. The only time I don’t work is immediately after a chemotherapy session.

“If I don’t go to work, it’s like I’m giving in.”

Ms Gwilliam says she is excited to be working with Locks of Love, a Florida-based charity that has had little exposure in this part of the world.

Each donation will help make a wig for a sick child, she explains.

“They are special wigs which are secure so you don’t have to worry about people pulling the wig off. They can shower with them.”

Between six and 10 ponytails are needed to create each wig.

Ms Gwilliam’s sons, seven-year-old Jack and Daniel, 11, were with her as she had her hair cut off.

“The boys have had lots of questions,”she says. “All you can do is reassure them at times like this.”

jhenzell@thenational.ae