Williamsburg auxiliary continues Hat Trader mission

More than 100 people crowded into The Unique Boutique as Suzi Williamson, aka The Hat Trader, passed her hats, wigs and scarves to the auxiliary at Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center in a formal ceremony last week.

The 350-square-foot volunteer-staffed "store" is open to anyone undergoing cancer treatment who wants a head covering. Even before the official opening, the boutique had served five people, ranging in age from 30 to 80. "It's incredible to see the power of how you can take someone who is so devastated and give them hope and show them someone cares," said Margaret Cullivan, the hospital's director of volunteer services. There's no charge for the service that also comes with a strong dose of emotional support.

Cullivan recruited cancer survivors Jane Andersen and Carolyn "CC" Collins to coordinate the boutique's team of volunteers. "We were both bald-headed. It's an overwhelming experience. This is an opportunity for people to see that there is a lot of hope. It's about attitude and feeling good and seeing that you can go on," said Andersen.

Volunteer designer Marie Bond spent countless hours preparing the space. With a budget of $2,500, the former mail room has been transformed into a warm, home-like space with shabby chic furnishings and gender-neutral colors. (They're hoping to accommodate all who need the help, including men and children.)

Plentiful storage space holds the inventory, from hand-knitted chemo caps to mannequin heads, and there are drawers and drawers of head-coverings, all sorted according to size and color. "It's nice and private. You don't feel that everyone is looking at you," said Andersen, who wore a wig for about a year during her own treatment.

For her part, Collins was a hat person. "I couldn't wear wigs. I broke out. The netting sometimes irritates people. I learned how to tie scarves and I wore hats," she said. "The main thing is attitude. That's your healer."

Williamson is delighted. For a dozen years, the Daily Press nominee for 2011 Citizen of the Year shared her collection of 700 wigs and more than 1,000 hats and scarves from her home in Kingsmill, relying on an honor system for recipients to return them when no longer needed. It was a casual, word-of-mouth labor of love for the breast cancer survivor. When she decided to move out of state to be near family, she agonized about what would happen to her collection and her work.

"My main feeling is relief — no guilt feelings anymore," Williamson said, marveling at the dedication and enthusiasm of the volunteers. "This will be much better and more accessible," she added.

Losing hair to cancer?

The Unique Boutique, (formerly The Hat Trader), offers free wigs, hats and scarves for those suffering from medical treatment hair loss. Auxiliary volunteers assist in selection and fitting in a private setting.

Where: First floor of The Geddy Outpatient Center, Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center, 400 Sentara Circle, Williamsburg; wheelchair accessible.

When: By appointment only; call 757-345-4439

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