These JC students help cancer patients reclaim part of their lives through hair donation drive
The team of five students behind Project HairCatchers turn the donated hairs into wigs for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Having a nice hairstyle holds great importance to many people. It is one of the many defining features a person can have, with some spending up to the hundreds in order to attain a desired hair colour or hairstyle.
But the delight of grooming and styling one’s own hair is not one that everyone can experience. There are some who suffer from conditions that cause hair loss, notably cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
To help cancer patients reclaim a lost part of themselves, a group of Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) and Nanyang Girls’ High School (NYGH) students are organising a hair donation drive.
The drive asks donors for at least nine inches of hair. With the exception of frizzy hair, those with curly, layered or treated hair are also allowed to donate.
The collected hair gets turned into wigs and donated to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Monetary donations are also raised during the drive.
The drive, also known as Project HairCatchers, is helmed by students in their last year of JC.
Its fifth iteration is set to be held on Apr 29, with the team of five led by 18-year-old Esther Tay. This will also be the Project’s first public donation drive since the pandemic.
Project HairCatchers has its sights set on a target amount of $30,000 and uses the fundraising platform Giving.sg, though it does not have a target goal for wigs.
The origins of the project, surprisingly, had very little to do with its current purpose. It was birthed from the Nanyang 100, Sing! Musical as part of the Nanyang 100th Anniversary celebrations in 2017.
The musical was set during a time period where Nanyang Girls High students were required to have hair shorter than shoulder length. Thus, the actors followed suit and cut theirs too.
Not wanting the cut hair to go to waste, the pioneer team of six students saw to it that the hair was turned into wigs and donated them to the Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF). They have since passed the torch to other batches of students who also volunteered to organise and run the donation drives.
This year, Esther and her organising committee have decided to hold the drive at the OCBC Square, hoping to share their cause with members of the public.
For Esther, Project HairCatchers is a passion project with her desire to help cancer patients going as far back as her primary school days.
“When I was in Primary 4, I wanted to help cancer patients in the little way that I could at that time. For me, that was shaving my head completely for Hair for Hope,” she recounts.
Esther adds how she was also able to raise about $3,000 in donations through her family and friends.
While she feels that her motivations to join Hair for Hope are “simple and unassuming” – referring to her desire to help cancer patients since young – she also draws on her experience after having shaved her head.
“I think it really surprised me as a primary school kid because wherever I went there would be people staring at me, and going to the female toilet was especially challenging.
“The ladies would wonder why there is a boy in the washroom,” she recalls.
A lesson she took away from her experience is how those afflicted by cancer do not only go through physical pains, but also an emotional and mental battle.
Unlike Esther, who was able to grow her hair again, this experience remains a harsh reality for some of her Project teammates. Some of them have direct family members who have been through cancer.
They “really wanted to make a difference in the community”, especially after having seen their mom or dad suffering from the disease, says Esther.
While Esther may not share the same life experiences, she has seen and read enough to know that cancer is a complete life changer that just disrupts your entire day to day life.
Having noble intentions comprised only half the battle, as organising a donation drive demanded a lot more from its organising committee. Beyond the actual drive, there was also the process of engaging with local wig makers to manufacture the wigs.
The wig making process uses a combination of handmade and machine work, and takes “about two to three weeks to a month”. It also costs $180 to make one wig, a discounted amount as a result of a relationship that Project HairCatchers has maintained over the years.
“If you want to make 100 wigs we will need at least $18,000 from public donations or sponsors, which is honestly quite an insane amount to raise,” says Esther.
The wigs also need to be adjusted to different head sizes and thus takes a longer time to make compared to mass produced wigs, she adds.
On top of finding wig makers, Esther and her team experienced some difficulty in finding a suitable location for their drive. Their eyes were set on hosting the drive at OCBC Square, attracted by the location’s high footfall, though they were driven away by its high rental costs. As students, they were not privy to a big budget.
It was through a friend at church, who works in Sports Singapore, that Esther learnt her team would be able to use the location should the team collaborate with SportsCares – Sport Singapore’s “philanthropic arm” that serves children and youth from vulnerable backgrounds, youth at-risk, persons with disabilities and isolated seniors.
This collaboration allows Esther’s team to use the location without having to cover the “actual renting cost” for the whole day of the event, only covering setting up and cleanup costs. The team will also use public fundraising pages and reach out to corporate sponsorships, adds Esther.
They are expecting around 3,000 people to attend the drive, and have received close to 300 in hair donor sign-ups.
Besides the donation drive, visitors can participate in various activity booths by SportsCares for free. Sport booths boast games like basketball and soccer, while carnival booths feature bowling and toss games. There will also be arts and crafts activities where visitors can play with sand art or make their own DIY keychain.
Their collaboration with SportsCare also saw a member from SportsCare reach out to BCF to ask whether they needed wigs. In turn, BCF said they needed 80 wigs from the Project.
There are also plans to send the excess wigs to overseas organisations, including a hospital in the Philippines.
She added that future iterations of Project HairCatchers may focus on overseas beneficiaries, owing to a “diminishing need for wigs in Singapore”. Also under consideration, is teaching youths to cut hair instead of relying on hairdressers, with the added benefit of imparting a life skill.
While most of the heavy lifting is done by the committees, Esther emphasises youths need not be in that circle to contribute. Simply showing up to donate their hair or money, or participate in the games are areas where youths can do their part.
Motivated by the passion to help cancer patients and undeterred by a demanding student lifestyle, the 2023 Project HairCatchers team sustains an optimistic outlook with their end goal where “whatever number raised” and how many wigs met is “already sufficient for them”.
For those reluctant to help, Esther offers these words: “If my simple action of donating nine inches of my hair can really make their day and help them feel more at ease, then I think it’s definitely worth it.”
Project HairCatchers’s 2023 Donation Drive will take place on Apr 29 at OCBC Square, Singapore Sports Hub.