'The Hat Trader' provides free wigs, support for cancer patients

She doesn't know how many women she has helped over the years. But, she does know that their numbers are growing.

For a dozen years now, Suzi Williamson, 69, a breast cancer survivor herself, has been providing women cancer patients with free scarves, hats and wigs to cover their hair loss while they undergo treatment. She works as "The Hat Trader" from her home in a secluded cul-de-sac in the Kingsmill development in James City County.

"I was just amazed with all the things she let me walk off with," said Dottie Falzone, a five-year breast cancer survivor, who has stepped in for Williamson on occasion. "No one does it like her. She is so relaxed, so casual, so warm and friendly. You feel as if you've known her for a while. She just made me feel good about myself. She has a real knack."

In recognition of that unconditional generosity, after accompanying a friend on a visit to "The Hat Trader" last spring, Hampton resident Sue Briggs nominated Williamson for 2011 Daily Press Citizen of the Year,

Her collection

Petite with silvery-blonde hair, Williamson has amassed a cache of 700 wigs and 1,000 hats that she draws from to help outfit several women each week. The collection is neatly stashed in bins in a floor-to-ceiling wall-length closet and under an old-fashioned double bed in a bubblegum-pink upstairs bedroom filled with antique furniture. She stows the overflow in a neighboring bedroom and rotates her supplies according to the season.

Before each client arrives, Williamson picks out a dozen wigs tailored to their taste, and displays them on mannequins around the room. She strews hats and scarves in complementary colors on the bed.

Once a visitor chooses — typically a couple of wigs, or three or four, and as many as a dozen hats and scarves — Williamson removes the pictures of the items, organized chronologically in a stack of five albums by when she received them, to indicate they're taken. There is no time limit on the loan and there is no charge. Williamson doesn't keep track of her expenditures of time and resources.

"The best thanks is that they get better," she said, but her collection has grown exponentially as grateful clients pay her back with additional items. A quilting guild, hospital auxiliary, knitting groups and friends also contribute hats and scarves for her to distribute. Deflecting attention from her own contributions, Williamson credits the generosity of the community for the success of "The Hat Trader."

Her special touch

The majority of her clients are going through breast cancer treatment; others are battling lung and ovarian cancers. They come to her by word of mouth, through support groups, from the American Cancer Society, or from having seen her flyer at the oncologist's office. For all, she provides the empathy that only someone who has traveled the same path can.

Williamson understands the trauma involved with hair loss. She knows about the tingly feeling on the scalp, the sensitivity and soreness and the need to look good. She knows at what stage in treatment the women will lose their hair and when it will start coming back. She knows how wigs can be hot and itchy.

"It goes beyond what she has to offer you physically. She spent well over an hour with me. I felt like a little princess. She prepared the room just for me," said Connie Oszczakiewicz, 63, in awestruck tones. After her June diagnosis, Oszczakiewicz found her way to Williamson through WINGS (Women in Numbers Growing Stronger), a Williamsburg support group co-founded by Falzone, who accompanied her as a "buddy."

Williamson started with a phone consultation about her preferred colors and styles. "She wanted to know a little bit about me, so when I got there she had a really good idea of what I would probably want, and we could use the time efficiently," said Oszczakiewicz. The women swapped stories and experiences. "We worked together. We weren't just there about picking up wigs. She really touched my heart," she said.

Oszczakiewicz, whose mother experienced hair loss in a battle with ovarian cancer 20 years ago, had kept two of her scarves as mementoes. "I haven't had the courage to go up to the cedar chest," she said. "This was a godsend — just going to a store and shopping, that's a hard environment." The cost savings were significant, too. Wigs can cost anywhere from $50 to $400.

Williamson's style sense

In addition to her empathy, Williamson has an unerring sense of style. "She has a real knack for finding the pieces that look good on you," Falzone said. "Most want to look just as they did, but I had four or five different color wigs. I had a lot of fun with them. I wanted to see how I'd look as a redhead."

Unlike her, Oszczakiewicz selected wigs similar to her disappearing hair, and Williamson assured her she could return at any time, if she changed her mind. She invites clients to select two similar wigs so that they can launder one and not have to wait for it to dry. The wigs are made from synthetic material and require minimal maintenance. Most will last for years, but heat is their enemy, and they must be kept away from curling irons, washing machines, and even the stove and dishwasher.

Williamson gives out "little wig caps" made of soft cotton to go underneath the wigs. She shows how to put powder under them, and how to adjust the wigs' Velcro straps. Gently, she shows how to pull a wig into position, starting at the front and pulling it back slowly. Most wigs have bangs to cover the mechanics, she explained. She demonstrates a "hair prosthesis," or "add-a-bang," a reversible fringe attached to an elastic band that can be worn under a scarf to create the illusion of a full head of hair; and she shows how an Amish cotton cap can give a lift and shape beneath a scarf, and how fancy tying techniques can add a glamorous touch.

She takes a man's white T-shirt and twists and turns it into a turban; in another trick, she interweaves the shirt with a scarf. "She has so many little touches, to turn it this way and that — things I would never have thought of, Her artistic knowledge of how colors go together is amazing. She's so knowledgeable," said Oszczakiewicz admiringly.

Williamson applies the same know-how to the hats. "Most say 'I'm not a hat person,'" she said, but she typically wins them over by demonstrating how comfortable they are compared to wigs, and how they can be adjusted to best effect. "If they can leave here with a smile on their face, then I've done my job. They're going to feel they can go out in public," she said.

A new home

"The Hat Trader" evolved naturally from Williamson's experience. Its expansion has been organic and based on a mutual support system. But now Williamson, who was widowed five years ago, is moving on, leaving for Colorado next spring to be near family. She is relieved to have found a home for her collection at Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center.

The hospital has set aside a 350-square foot "Unique Boutique" that will house her wigs, scarves and hats. The hospital auxiliary, which has received national recognition for providing free mammograms, will continue to welcome women seeking free head-coverings. Jane Andersen, a breast cancer survivor, will coordinate the other volunteers. "People are coming out of the woodwork," said Margaret Cullivan, director of volunteer services for the hospital. "Everyone is very excited about this."

But no one wants Williamson to leave. "No one does it like she does. It's her avocation. We'll have to do some training," said Falzone, whose entire support group has volunteered to pitch in. "It's never going to be the same without her."

The Hat Trader

Suzi Williamson provides free wigs, scarves and hats to women undergoing cancer treatment. Call 757-258-5628 for an appointment, or to make a contribution.

The SWRMCA Unique Boutique, Geddy Outpatient Center, Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center, Williamsburg. Call 757-984-7194 for information; scheduled to open mid-November to take over the services currently provided by Suzi Williamson and The Hat Trader.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad