Some 250 wigs made from human hair are waiting for cancer patients in fitting rooms at the Pink Heart Funds office.
Breast prostheses and bras in all shapes and sizes are tucked in boxes, ready to give to women who’ve had a mastectomy surgery.
JoAn Niceley, founder and executive director of the nonprofit, also has pictures of cancer patients with smiling faces, including those who lost their battle, on walls throughout the group’s office on Beatline Road.
She says the pictures and others’ need for help are motivating her and the volunteer staff more than ever. Pink Heart Funds learned last week that $235,000 was taken from the group’s coffers over a 17-month period.
A Pink Heart officer She has been charged with embezzlement.
Niceley said she was hurt by the discovery, and now she’s hurt by social media posts that say Pink Heart has shut down.
But Niceley, with her positive and energetic personality, is emphatic the group’s work has not stopped. There’s enough inventory to continue its services for now.
“With God’s help, and donations, we’re going to build our account back up again,” she said.
When her organization received nonprofit status 11 years ago, she and its board of directors agreed the group would have an all-volunteer staff. No salaries for anyone, including herself.
Funds were at an all-time high
Niceley said the group’s funding from donations and benefits used to average $10,000 a year. The treasury had reached an all-time high of $50,000 until a bank teller’s recent call to say a check was about to bounce. Police said the group’s treasurer/event coordinator stole the money.
“There were two sets of books and I was only seeing the one that made it look like we were in good financial shape,” Niceley said.
She and volunteers will now depend more than ever on donors and fundraisers to ensure the group’s ongoing success. Pink Heart has insurance, but it doesn’t cover loss by embezzlement.
Pink Heart has received $1,100 in donations since the embezzlement made the news. Niceley said one woman gave $5 and was apologetic that the donation wasn’t larger.
“Every bit counts,” she said. “What if 100 people each gave $5?”
Niceley said the group raises the most money during October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Niceley said she’s received numerous calls of concern and offers of help. For those who ask how she feels about the embezzlement, she said she tells them, “Have you ever had your heart ripped out?”
Wigs a big expense
Pink Heart has given away 4,000 wigs since it was granted nonprofit status in 2005.
Its services include collecting ponytails of 10 inches or longer to make wigs for women and children who are uninsured or underinsured.
Wigs are a large expense.
To get the best price, the group sends 2,000 ponytails at a time to a wig maker in Brooklyn, New York. The cost is $40,000 per order, with half the money due up front, Niceley said. The wig maker ships back 125 wigs in four to six weeks.
Sometimes the wigs on hand don’t provide a good fit for women with large or unusually shaped heads. It costs $1,200 for a wig by special order, she said.
Those with long hair who want to donate a ponytail are asked to make sure the hair is clean and dry and secured at the top and middle by a rubber band or holder before it’s cut. The group asks the ponytails be placed in a plastic re-sealable bag and mailed to the Pink Heart office.
“It can be straight, curly, dyed or gray,” Niceley said. “We don’t care. We just want your hair.”
About 100 ponytails are donated each month, she said.
A nonclinical setting
Niceley said Pink Heart designed its office to be a nonclinical setting that’s friendly and feminine.
The women’s wig-fitting room, with a luxurious look, is named the Victorian Wig Parlor. A kid-friendly fitting room for children is called the Pony Tail Kids Club. The Hope Boutique for prosthetic fittings has an elegant, sophisticated look.
Pink Heart also provides lymphedema sleeves for women after a mastectomy.
Once a month, the group holds a free class for women undergoing chemotherapy. The class offers head-wrap and scarf-tying demonstrations, tips on making eyebrows and skin-care information.
The office doesn’t have regular hours. Volunteers have jobs elsewhere, but appointments are available for consultations and fittings.
How it all began
Niceley, a hair stylist since 1978, said she’s been helping women suffering from hair loss for 20 years.
“As a hair stylist, I would see my clients going through this or hear of someone they know who was losing their hair. I began to find ways to get them affordable, comfortable, natural-looking wigs,” she said
Her desire to help grew after she talked to a woman who’d bought a wig after starting chemotherapy treatment.
“One of our local businesses charged her $500 for a $65 wig,” she said. “That was it for me.”
Niceley owns JoAn’s Hair Studio and is a co-owner of the Hope Chest, a gift shop that donates a portion of proceeds to Pink Heart Funds.
Niceley said she later learned a popular charity that collects hair for wigs was not providing wigs for children. Pink Heart now has 50 wigs in stock for children and 200 for women.
The need to help cancer patients became more real for Niceley in October 2002. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and learned firsthand of the need for emotional and psychological support.
She said some women who lose a breast put a sock in their bra because they can’t afford a prosthetic one.
“I tried putting socks in my bra,” she said. “It is not comfortable and it does not look natural because the socks move around.”
She learned of the need to replace prosthetic breasts, which break down over time and can leak.
Nicely has saved some prosthetic breasts women have left behind. She stores them in plastic bags and uses them to show what can happen over time, and how they can become unsafe. One is flat. Two were leaking; one was covered with duct tape; another was taped up and had mold on it.
Today, the group provides breast prostheses to about 30 women a month. The bras have an insert to hold the prostheses in place.
A manufacturer that had shut down sent her its residual stock.
“They found us on the internet,” she said. “That’s God’s work for you.”
How to reach Pink Heart Funds
▪ Call 228-575-8299
▪ Visit www.pinkheartfunds.org
▪ Email email@example.com
▪ Visit Pink Heart Funds on Facebook
Upcoming Pink Heart fundraisers
▪ Friday, Sept. 30 — Pretty in Pink Out, a night out at Stone County Fair Grounds, Wiggins
▪ Saturday, Oct. 1 — Pretty in Pink at Blaylock Park, Wiggins
▪ Saturday, Oct. 8 — Walk of Hope walk/run/stroller roll, Long Beach Town Green
▪ Saturday, Oct. 15 — Pink Heart table at VFW Post 2434 Ladies Auxiliary indoor flea market, Veterans Avenue, Biloxi