September 06, 1999 12:00 PM

Eleven-year-old Skylar Lewis is learning the simple pleasures of having a full head of hair. The Plant City, Fla., sixth grader lost all the hair on her body at 3 while suffering from a form of alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease. “She used to cry all the time,” recalls her mom, Elaine Gordon. “Kids can be really cruel.” But since receiving a brunette wig from Locks of Love, a nonprofit organization that gives hairpieces to needy kids, Skylar can’t stop fussing with her newfound tresses. “I like washing my hair,” she says, “because I missed it.”

Thousands of kids share that longing. About 4 million people in the U.S. suffer from alopecia areata, which causes the body to reject all or some of its hair. In some cases, steroid treatments can restore hair growth. But those kids whose hair may never grow back must often resort to disguising their baldness with caps or synthetic wigs, which may look fake. “Many of these kids refuse to go to school, or they come home crying,” says Madonna Coff-man, 37, Locks of Love’s president and chairwoman, whose daughter was struck by alopecia areata two years ago.

Since its founding in 1997, Locks of Love has given away 45 natural-hair wigs to children who have permanently lost their hair to alopecia areata, burns or radiation therapy. (Such customized hairpieces retail for around $3,500.) “While this isn’t a cure,” says Coffman, “it gives them back their day-to-day life, so it’s as normal as it can be.” Child development experts agree. “The most important thing socially from ages 7 to 12 is to be part of a group and not stand out,” says Eugenio Rothe, an associate professor of child psychiatry at the University of Miami School of Medicine. “Somebody with no hair stands out and can be cruelly scapegoated.”

The hair comes from volunteers—more than 20,000 so far. One woman took 56 inches off her Ra-punzel-like mane; a man sent in a lock of his late mother’s hair. Even hundreds of inmates from California’s prison system contributed their hair after the state instituted a policy requiring shorter cuts. Coffman welcomes hair from felons as long as they obey her laws: The hair must be at least 10 inches long, free of chemical damage and bundled in a ponytail or braid.

Several volunteers sort the hair by color and length into large plastic bins. It takes 12 braids—a total of about 140,000 strands of hair—to make each handmade wig. “We have no shortage of hair, but we do have a shortage of money,” says Coffman. With Locks receiving a new hairpiece request each day, she says she may have to sell some donated hair to help,.defray the cost of having the wigs made.

The group has parted company—amicably—with its founder, hairpiece designer Peggy Knight, an alopecia areata sufferer who created Locks of Love to help families who couldn’t afford handmade wigs. Initially her firm the Medical Image Collection, a company that sells wigs, coordinated the production of hairpieces for Locks. But to avoid a potential conflict of interest, the group has contracted with a new manufacturer. “There was never anything done that was unethical,” says Knight, 51, who explains that she left Locks last October because the group’s activity had burgeoned to the point where she could no longer handle it. “It just took off so fast,” she says.

Coffman, a Lebanon, Ky., native, knows firsthand why the wigs are in such demand. The youngest of 16 kids of Ray White, a maintenance engineer, and Florine, a homemaker, she found a bald spot on-her head while working as an open-heart surgical nurse in Louisville, Ky., in 1984. “I was very lucky,” says Coffman. “If I changed the hair part, I could hide it.” After more than two years, steroid treatments restored her hair.

In 1988 she moved to Manalapan, Fla., to live in a five-bedroom, water-front home with ophthalmologist Tom Coffman, 56. After giving up her career to be a full-time home-maker, she wed Coffman in 1990; Abigail was born three years later. (Son Thomas followed in ’96.) But when Abigail’s long blonde hair fell out in 1997, Coffman agonized. “I wanted to follow her around with a baseball bat,” she says, “so people wouldn’t stare at her.”

Though treatment brought back Abigail’s hair within two years, Coffman began volunteering at Locks last fall. She got so involved that the board asked her to lead the group after Knight’s departure.

Nowadays, Abigail, 6, wears her hair shoulder-length with barrettes. And Coffman savors giving her young Locks of Love recipients, like Skylar, the same kind of normal childhood that her daughter now enjoys. “I feel happy because I have hair to play with and rub on my face and neck,” says Skylar of her new wig. “When I didn’t have hair, boys didn’t like me. Now they like me.”

Erik Meers

Aixa M. Pascual in Palm Springs, Fla., and Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles

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