A UK-based charity focusing on alternatives to wigs and practical tips is helping people feel good and look confident as they experience hair loss at what could be a really distressing time in their lives. 

HeadWrappers was founded in 2016 by Cris Benn, from a legal and banking employment background, and two other trustees, Julie Ramsdale, an experienced project manager and Karyn Kersley who specialises in sales and marketing. All three trustees met whilst they were volunteering at the HeadStrong service by Breast Cancer Now, formerly known as Breast Cancer Care at Guy’s Hospital in London. From June 2016, Breast Cancer Now was no longer able to run HeadStrong, a free and unique service where talk to specially trained volunteers about how to tie headscarves and use hats and hairpieces. 

Meet ‘HeadWrappers’ a charity inspiring those undergoing cancer treatment that may experience hair loss

Cris shared that “Once the HeadStrong service was cut, we realised that actually, this volunteering service is a really valued thing that we do. Coming from a legal background, I knew how to create a charitable trust, so we created HeadWrappers. It started off as three friends who are now the trustees of the charity. We toyed with what we were going to call ourselves as were walking around the chemotherapy department, and people referred to us as ‘those ladies that headwrap – that wrap your head!’ That’s how the name came about and within a few years, we became a national registered charity.”

Prior to the pandemic, HeadWrappers built up relationships with the likes of Macmillan, Maggie’s and independent cancer support centres prominent on the high street in London and the Southeast. “We run group workshops, they vary in numbers, but usually around eight women. They choose free scarves and ties and we demonstrate how to wrap them on your head with different shapes and sizes of scarves. We would then have around twenty to thirty different items of chemotherapy headwear from suppliers, that people could try on and see what suited them before they bought it.” 

Within six weeks of the pandemic, HeadWrappers made the decision to hold virtual workshops and therefore recruited volunteers and created a training programme. “There were some organisations that sort of sat back, and we were one of those who really went for it and it’s been great. We started to offer virtual workshops, in collaboration with the existing venues that have closed. And how it worked is that we created an online registration form with the support centre. It’s been really successful – for example, we’ve got ten workshops sessions in January. And we are back face to face with three of them. And of course, it’s enabled us to reach ladies throughout the UK whereas before the pandemic we were restricted to London and the Southeast. We’ve even had some we had a woman from Australia and woman from America, join us virtually It’s been a really good opportunity for us to expand.”

In terms of training, Cris, Julie and Karyn already had a great bond with Breast Cancer Now who were supportive when they began the organisation. “We had a great foundation and starting point, given our relationship we Breast Cancer Now. Our training consists of modules, policies and procedures which is detailed volunteer management software called Better Impact. Using this software created Q&A tests for our policies. Additionally, our training consists of learning about chemotherapy side effects, both physical and emotional, particularly in relation to hair loss. In the first part of our training, we talk about the different types of chemotherapy, which isn’t too technical but just touched upon for our volunteers’ learning. We go through the session format, what we expect from our volunteers and what they can expect from us. Simple things like visibly washing your hands, keeping nails short, not wearing jewellery. The second part of our training is hands-on teaching the volunteer how to tie a scarf. Of course, clients’ preferences are all different, we demonstrate how to wear hats with hairpieces to show what you can achieve with a few items. The third part of our training is safeguarding which is completed online. We also ask our volunteers to shadow a couple of sessions. HeadWrappers also focus on caring for the scalp before, during and after chemotherapy. On top of that, we’ve got a band of knitters who have been absolutely brilliant during lockdown because it’s given us a focus. There’s an elderly woman down the road who crochets and sends me a sack of comfort curls every month, which are small pieces knitted together used to squeeze to relieve stress.” 

A week before these sessions participants receive a goodie bag with a free scarf called a ‘square’ and a corresponding tie. Alongside this, they receive a sleep cap, a wig cap, eyebrow stencil and a beanie and headbands which are knitted by our volunteers. 

Cris shares that the pandemic has enabled HeadWrappers for those undergoing cancer treatment to speak through their concerns and have confidants along the way. “It became apparent that some of our ladies just weren’t getting out. Support centres were closed so they were quite isolated. As a result, we introduced fortnightly sessions called ‘Tea Top Knots and Turbans.’ It’s an informal chat with others who are going through the same experience with an accompanying guest speaker. We’ve had lots of sharing instantaneously and built up a community. For instance, we’ve seen a lady start chemotherapy go right through to the end and her hair’s regrown every fortnight.’

HeadWrappers place importance on listening to clients with empathy. “Some volunteers have personal experience with cancer and others do not. We do make a big point that you don’t talk about yourself anyway. It’s crucial as part of the training. Because it’s really hard not to empathise when somebody says, ‘I’ve just been to Spain on holiday?’ The natural thing to do is talk about your own experience. Therefore, we have to be quite disciplined not to try to connect in a personal way. Whereas, if we’re asked about our experience, it’s a personal choice where people want to share that information.”

To find out more about HeadWrappers or volunteer click here.

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Uzma Gulbahar holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University College of London. She is particularly interested in exploring untold stories surrounding marginalised groups, identity and culture.

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