By Sara Paulson, Florida Today
ROCKLEDGE, FL (Florida Today) -- Valerie Paul's best friend was aghast at the image in the mirror.
Thetwo worked together at Rockledge Country Club when Audrey Unkle wasdiagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer. Chemotherapy took its toll.
"Shewas very, very much about her hair," Valerie said, sitting in the frontroom of her Rockledge home recently. "When she lost her hair, sheshowed me her head one time in the bathroom, and she said, 'I'm so uglynow.' And I said, 'No. You don't see what I see.'
"I thought she looked beautiful."
An idea struck the 46-year-old, who has a penchant for collecting Barbie dolls, as she scrolled through eBay one evening.
"Ijust randomly look for Barbies, and I put 'bald Barbie' in there, andthere was a seller that had five bald Barbie heads," Valerie said.
She scooped them up.
"Iliterally thought, 'OK, if my friend was this anxious about the way shelooked, what would I feel like if I was a child going through chemo? Orif I was a child that my mommy was going through chemo?'" Valerie said."It just became a mission."
Audrey lost her battle with cancer in August 2012 at age 56. But Valerie wasn't done.
Valeriebegan taking Barbie bodies and carefully replacing the heads withhairless ones. She liked what she saw. But she didn't know what to do.She contacted a friend, who put her in touch with Wanda Schultz, 70, ofRockledge. Once the pair made an acquaintance, there was no stoppingthem.
Duo on a mission
"I went to every pediatricianin the Rockledge-Cocoa area, and none of them treat children withcancer," said Wanda, the wife of former mayor Larry Schultz.
The two got in touch with the Ronald McDonald House in Orlando, planning to give the bald Barbies to little girls with cancer.
And then, Valerie caught a couple minutes of Ellen one afternoon.
TaliaJoy Castanello, 13, of Orlando, was being interviewed on thecomedienne's talk show. The bald, beautiful teen, stricken with terminalcancer, had become an online sensation, sharing makeup tips on YouTubeand inspiring more on Facebook. Valerie reached out to her via email andgot a response within minutes. Talia received one of the bald Barbies.
"Shenever wore a wig," Valerie said of the girl who lost her cancer battlein July 2013. "She was a very big inspiration for us."
Wanda saidTalia helped raise awareness and more than $100,000 for BASE camp, aWinter Park children's cancer foundation that offers year-round programsfor pediatric cancer patients. Valerie and Wanda decided to volunteerat the camp, serving lunch - and Barbies - to patients at Nemours andArnold Palmer Hospital for Children.
They've handed over more than 300 Barbies and 75 sewn baby dolls.
"Ilove making them," Valerie says. "And they talk to me. They tell mewhat they want to be. I know that sounds crazy. They literally do, theytell me who they want to be."
Labor of love
They also make sure anyone who might need one gets one. Some have been shipped as far away as Colorado.
"Athletic, beachy, etc., with all the different outfits and accessories," Valerie said. "I can individualize for each child."
Valerieis helped by her grandmother, Juanita Barker, 90, who also sews plushdolls for the youngest of cancer patients. "What about babies too youngfor Barbies?" Wanda said, noting they've turned to a Raggedy Ann/Andypattern for inspiration, sans hair. "We're looking for people to sew."
The women laugh when the topic of covering costs comes up.
"So far, it's just been us funding ourselves," Valerie said. "When I started, I didn't expect the need to be as big."
"It'svery much such a labor of passion and love, that really, it's OK,"Valerie said. "I literally didn't even realize until my dad came down tosee me and said, 'Do you know how much money you've spent?'"
The two hosted a fundraiser in December. They were able to raise $1,400, which went to buy Barbie dresses, stands and more.
So far, there's not a lot of foresight put into who gets a Barbie. They go to whoever has a need.
Julie Spurlock, 14, has one.
Shewas diagnosed with cancer in February 2013. A trip to the pediatricianand a follow-up at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children confirmed Juliehad Precursor B-cell lymphoblastic leukemia.
"The first thing shehad asked the pediatrician when they told her she might have leukemiawas, 'Am I going to die?'" Julie's mom, Laura said. "And I said, 'No,I'm not going to let you die.'
"And the first thing she asked the oncologist was, 'Am I going to lose my hair?'"
The answer didn't sit well.
"Shewas very upset," Laura said. Julie's long locks fell out about six toeight weeks later. "Obviously, she's 13 years old, she had hair down herback."
The family was stunned by the outpouring of communitysupport. Laura was bombarded with Facebook messages from people whowanted to help.
The Spurlocks grew especially fond of the bikers.
"I'mnot a biker," Laura said. "I had some bikers call me up and say, 'Iwant to do something for your daughter.' These leather-vested,long-haired, Harley-riding guys just kind of came out and they ralliedbehind her and supported her."
In the fall, Laura received another Facebook message. This time it was from Wanda and Valerie.
Theymade sure a special Barbie ended up in Julie's hands, one decked out infaux-leather riding pants, black motorcycle boots, a Harley-Davidson"leatherette" jacket and riding goggles. She's every bit the beautifulbiker Barbie. Radiant. Smiling.
She just happens to be bald.
"Ithought it was really cool," Julie said, holding onto the doll, stillsafely encased in its original Collector Edition box. "Everybody thinksBarbies are so perfect and flawless. Seeing one with no hair makes youfeel really good about yourself."
Julie is scheduled to wrap up treatment in June 2015.
Laurawas incredibly touched by the measure. Seeing stuff like this makes youthink, she's beautiful," Laura said of the Barbie. "She doesn't needhair. I think that inspires a lot of these kids."
Not just kid stuff
Wandais a breast cancer survivor. Last year, she had a follow-up appointmentwith Dr. Nikita Shah, a medical oncologist with University of FloridaHealth Cancer Center at Orlando Health. She brought some of the Barbiesto donate to an on-campus boutique for breast cancer survivors.
"WhenI finished the appointment, I said, 'You need to go down to the giftshop and see the Barbies I brought in,'" Wanda said. "She opened thedoor and said, 'Go down and bring every one of those Barbies to me.'"
The doctor fessed up: "I took them all. Yep."
Shahwanted to hand out the dolls to newly diagnosed adult cancer patients,moms who needed a way to help their children understand.
"So for awoman to explain to her 5-year-old what is going on with her, well, the5-year-old may not notice anything but the fact that mom loses herhair," Shah said. "So now she can say, 'You know what? Look at Barbie.Look at how pretty she is. Look how she looks good. The only thing shedoesn't have is she doesn't have hair. Mom is going to be just likethat. Otherwise, Mom's going to be fine.'"
The women find their endeavor bittersweet.
"I hate that there's a need for them, but there is a need for them," Valerie said. "And somebody has to do it."
Shah thinks it's therapeutic for the patients.
"Theyjust get tears in their eyes," Shah said of her patients as they lookat the Barbies. "They kind of give them a visual of what's to come. Butthen, looking at the Barbie and saying, 'You know what? The Barbie'sstill smiling. Everything's going to be OK.'"
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