When Ransom Everglades varsity tennis player Raquel Coronell asked her oncologist if she would lose her hair, he gave it to her straight.
Yes, he said, and soon.
Raquel was diagnosed at age 16 in August 2015 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia — a cancer that occurs when bone marrow cells develop errors in their DNA. Within two weeks, on her first day of 11th grade, tufts of her hair, curly and sweeping the small of her back, began to shed.
“I was walking down the hall and hair would fall out everywhere, and people would go like, ‘Whoa. What was what?’” she said, recalling the immediate effects of chemotherapy.
As a society, we’re not educated or prepared to not stare at people who are bald.”
Maria Cristina Uribe, Raquel Coronell’s mother
A once-frizzy mane that childhood friends teased her about, Raquel watched as it disappeared, strand by strand.
She explored her options.
Wigs were not meant for South Florida heat and humidity, she quickly decided. Scarves were a fun option. Long, short, silk, cotton, modern and traditional, she tried them all, according to her mom, Maria Cristina Uribe.
“But then one day she said, ‘Why do I need to cover my head? I’m comfortable being bald. If someone wants to look at me, it’s OK.’” Uribe said.
A hairdresser came to Raquel’s house and, armed with a buzzer, shaved it all off.
“I thought I was going to be emotional but I was just relieved,” Raquel said, now 17 and sporting close-cropped hair, dyed ruby red.
But the experience isn’t quite as easy for the young girls with whom she shares the halls at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, where she undergoes chemotherapy and has regular check-ups with her physician, Dr. Guillermo Deangullo.
“I remember how much of a big deal hair was when I was that age,” she said. “So I couldn’t even imagine how those little girls felt.”
That realization planted the seeds for the Bald Is Beautiful Project.
Bald Is Beautiful raises money to buy and donate bald American Girl dolls to young cancer patients undergoing treatment in hospitals across South Florida and Colombia, where Raquel was born.
It began in January with a page on the crowdfunding site GoFundMe.com, an idea Raquel had while on a Skype call with her childhood friend, María Restrepo, who still lives in Bogota. As kids, they shared an affinity for American Girl dolls, a line of toys that can be customized and accessorized to resemble the girls who play with them.
While catching up on video chat one night, Raquel and María wondered whether bald American Girl dolls existed to mirror children like Raquel, who are battling cancer.
Less than 24 hours after creating the crowdfunding page and sharing the link with friends and family, the duo raised more than $1,700, enough to purchase 15 dolls, which cost about $115 each.
And the donations keep rolling in.
Sofia’s Hope, a local nonprofit organization that helps fund cancer research, education and outreach, contacted Raquel and offered to match funds raised.
“I’m always looking for programs that help kids that are going through treatment and in any way helps them forget, even for five minutes, that they’re going through his horrible treatment,” said Marta Blanco, founder of Sofia’s Hope. “For girls it’s very difficult to lose your hair. Because people do stare. This is a way for girls to hold their head up high.”
To date, the Bald Is Beautiful Project, which earned an official name and web address one week ago, has raised more than $12,000. The nonprofit has ordered 40 American Girl dolls that will be given to girls between ages 5 and 12 years old in Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, Baptist Children’s Hospital and Holtz Children’s Hospital at Jackson Memorial. María, Raquel’s friend and business partner, will personally donate dolls at Bogota children’s hospitals. Blanco will make her rounds in Cali, Colombia.
Feedback to the initiative has been overwhelmingly positive. But there is criticism, Raquel said, that the dolls’ plastic heads, gleaming in the absence of synthetic hair usually in place, are a “cruel reminder” of the children’s cancers.
She understands where critics are coming from, but she said she hopes the project will “translate into a movement of self-acceptance,” she said.
“You don’t have to be the bald girl. You can just be a girl who happens to be bald and is beautiful anyway.”
Visit www.baldisbeautifulproject.org and click on the “Donate” button.