Jess Ekstrom discovered that small accessory can make a huge impact.
She had just finalized the details of a child's Sleeping Beauty-themed trip to Disney World when she got word that the recipient, a 4-year-old girl named Renee who lived near Jess in Charlotte, North Carolina, was too sick to fly. "I went to a costume shop, grabbed the Sleeping Beauty costume for myself and a matching dress for Renee, and showed up at her house to play for the day," she says. Jess noticed that Renee, like many of the other girls she'd met who had lost their hair to cancer treatment, wore a colorful headband—a comfier choice than the itchy wigs and hats most hospitals offered young patients. "One week later, I got a call from Renee's mom that she had passed away. Here I was, just a person who was in her life for one day, but it hit me hard." Jess wanted to do more. "I saw that when Renee and the other little girls wore headbands, it was something so simple that made such a great impact on their confidence."
Jess spent her next year as a junior at North Carolina State University launching Headbands of Hope. The business sells bejeweled headbands, chiffon turbans, hair clips, and leather or lace bands that double as chokers and donates one to a child with cancer for each one sold (they're now found in Ulta stores, more than 1,000 boutiques, and online at headbandsofhope.com). As a result, the business has donated more than 200,000 headbands across every children's hospital in America, plus five other countries.
Experts say that hair loss from cancer treatment is a huge self-esteem hit to women and girls. Proof that something as seemingly small as a pretty accessory can help: a file Jess keeps on her computer with thousands of letters and photos from young headband recipients and their families. "I heard from a mom whose child was starting kindergarten in a few weeks but didn't want to go back to school because her hair hadn't grown back," says Jess, now 26. "After she got a headband, she laid out her school supplies and backpack and said, 'When do I start kindergarten?' When I saw that letter, I knew this was working."
"It's not about what we do when we dream, it's about what we do when we wake up. We can have the best ideas, but they mean nothing without action."