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Friday, October 18, 2019

For over 25 years, Lillian Lee has been invested in making women feel better about themselves. An expert in all-things hair and wigs, Lee has made her presence known to the Bergen County community at the Lillian Lee Salon and Spa on Teaneck Road. While the salon offers services such as cuts, color, manicures, waxing, makeup, and wig-care, in recent years something unique has been added to this growing list.

Do Wonders, Lee’s brainchild, was a collaborative effort that allows her to really help those in need. She collects gently or fairly used wigs from those who no longer need them, and distributes them to women and girls who have lost their hair from an illness such as cancer. She redoes and styles the wig to closely mimic the recipient’s former hair, and is able to rekindle a sense of self-confidence that can sometimes dwindle with the loss of hair due to chemotherapy. The charity is currently 501(c)3-pending, and manages to help many people in need via word of mouth, and referrals from the American Cancer Society, Tomorrow’s Children, Hackensack University Medical Center, and Holy Name Hospital.

“The idea for Do Wonders was born when a client passed away and her family asked me if I could use her old wigs for something,” Lee says. Only a few days later, another client admitted that she was beginning chemotherapy and was worried that her hair would fall out. “Immediately, I took out one of the wigs and modeled it to fit her look. The woman left with tears in her eyes and a renewed sense of optimism.”

The newly built salon has a familial atmosphere, and Lillian Lee’s clients are loyal and dedicated. Each patron is treated with respect and, in turn, views Lillian and the stylists as close friends. With this seed of mutual affection, a long-time client and former Bergen County resident Heather Cohnen, was inspired to help out in Lee’s charitable journey. “Heather invited me over for coffee one evening, and when I came to her house I was surprised to see 25 women sitting there, each poised and ready to hear about my plans,” Lee says. “It was then that we came up with the name for ‘Do Wonders,’ and the charitable organization was formally born.”

Within days, over 50 wigs were collected, with each woman from the meeting completing a specific task in the joint effort. Lee later applied for non-profit status at the behest of a former client and friend, Deborah Ustas, a Bergen County Superior Court Judge, who later died of cancer. Today, Lee has drawers full of donated wigs and has helped hundreds of women who have come to her when their spirits needed lifting.

Lee is assisted by Aliza Fischman, a wig specialist, who is trained to make any adjustment or repair. Fischman tailors each piece to the appropriate comfort level of the recipient, creating a natural look and feel. Through Yachad, the salon also has a volunteer working on sorting and labeling the pieces, and washing and setting some of the donated wigs. “We’re here to help, but to do so, we need the help of the community,” Fischman says, emphasizing that donated pieces can be of human hair, mixed, or synthetic material. “People can help by donating old wigs, or by contributing to this cause.”

Before Pesach, the salon raffled off a brand-new wig, and raised $1,100 for Do Wonders. The money is used to cover basic expenses and supplies but, in addition to that, each year a teen with cancer is chosen to receive a custom wig before her prom. The wig is purchased and styled to the recipient’s liking, and on the day of the prom the young lady is pampered with an up-do, a makeover, massage, and a manicure/pedicure. “These girls deserve the very best...,” Lee says, her eyes full of passion.

But the community is not alone of those who have stepped forward to contribute. “One time a woman who received one of our wigs recovered from cancer,” Lee says. “She came back to the salon and returned the wig, and later that day, another newly diagnosed patient came and chose that same piece. It was truly a ‘from God’ moment.” But it wasn’t just the wig exchange that connected the two. The woman in remission served as a beacon of hope for the newly diagnosed. She was able to mentally prepare her for what she was about to endure, and hold her hand through the process. And of course, wear the same badge of beauty and pride through it all.

The salon is looking to expand to host larger-scale fundraisers, and hopes to purchase new, smaller-sized wigs for children in the future. In the meantime, Lillian Lee Salon and Spa continues to collect used wigs and helps women view themselves as beautiful, to recognize themselves in the mirror even at times when they don’t feel the same as they once did. The power of feeling-good may not cure the cancer, but it can definitely help.

Sarah Abenaim is a freelance writer living in Teaneck. She is working on her first book.

By Sarah Abenaim