A Cut Above
Meet these post-millennials bringing smiles to children who have lost their hair to ailments
"I know I cannot change a person or the choices they make. However, having the capacity to make a difference in the life of not one, but many, is something I aspire to," says 19-year-old Amatullah Vahanwala. Evidently, she walks the talk. She and Niharika Jadeja started Hair for Happiness, a hair donation drive. The proceeds of the campaign go to the Little Princess Trust, a British non-profit that helps create wigs for children suffering from hair loss due to cancer treatments and other illnesses. It all began in November 2015, when Amatullah and Niharika, class XI students of Bengaluru's Candor International School, were discussing their community service project. Niharika told Amatullah about her first hair donation experience at the age of nine and that she was eager to do it again. "This set off a chain of brainstorming sessions, and we came up with the concept of Hair for Happiness," says Amatullah, now a BBA student at the Centre of Management Studies, Bengaluru. "Painstaking research goes into finding treatments for debilitating diseases. However, it makes me sad that people who are suffering are treated like numbers on a graph, nothing more and nothing less," says Niharika, who is now studying molecular and cellular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, USA.
For the youngsters, the thought of helping a child regain their self-esteem was a huge motivator. This helped them overcome various obstacles along the way. For instance, all the hair donation organizations they initially found would only accept longer strands (12 to 13 inches) of untreated hair. "But the Little Princess Trust had a minimum requirement of seven inches of hair and didn't have too many issues about dyed and treated hair," says Amatullah. This opened up a larger donor pool.
The process began with creating a Facebook and a GoFundMe page for financial donations. The first contribution came in early 2016 at school when fellow student Tanya Gupta volunteered to donate her hair. At first, the struggle was to find enough donors, with the goal of at least 10 donations to complete the project. Through promotions in salons, schools, apartment complexes and corporate offices, such as Oracle and Akamai Technologies, as well as reaching out to volunteer hairstylists and many weeks of hard work, they eventually exceeded their goal. They then held donation drives elsewhere in Bengaluru.
Being organized helped. "We maintained digital spreadsheets to account for every little cost from ziplock bags to rubber bands," says Amatullah. Since the initiative fell under corporate social responsibility goals, a few companies provided financial support by covering the cost of postage to the UK and hiring of additional hairstylists for larger drives.
"As a small thank-you present from us to the donor, we [also] curated the Kits to Cut gifts comprising our own label, a certificate from the Little Princess Trust, rubber bands for the donation and little barrettes," the girls say.
In July 2017, both Niharika and Amatullah graduated from school. They have since handed over the reins of Hair for Happiness to Nikita Nachnani, a class XII student from National Public School, Koramangala, Bengaluru, but the duo continues to interact with potential donors and respond to enquiries.
With time, the number of donations has gradually grown. The Hair for Happiness Facebook page--now managed by Nikita--is today a small yet strong community of more than 830 people. "While these are only numbers on a screen, it goes to show how many people are now a little more aware of the suffering of children with illnesses, and how many people wish to show their support and take action," says Amatullah.
"I think the moment both Amatullah and I finally realized the magnitude of our creation was when we crossed 100 donations," says Niharika. This, when they assumed it would take a "miracle to reach even 10 donations".
Niharika hopes to go into research in the biological sciences and Amatullah has realized that true learning takes place outside the classroom. With 19-year-olds like these, the future is definitely in good hands.