By Jessica Connor
ROCK HILL—For Tatum Brewer, 10, having alopecia isn't so bad. Except when it's July, and all the kids are asking why you're wearing a hat on the sweltering indoor playground.
Except when it's a sleepover, and all the girls are French braiding their hair and tying satin bows.
Except when you re begged last minute to acolyte at church and the only hat you brought looks silly with the formal robe.
Except when the questions upon questions start making you feel less like a helpful person and more like an oddball.
It would drive me a little bit crazy, Tatum admits, shyly taking a bite of her sandwich while she chats about living with the hair-loss condition that has plagued her since she was a toddler.
Tatum s battle with alopecia began when she was 2, and a patch of scalp revealed itself on her otherwise hair-covered head. Eight years later, the girl has more patches than hair, and doctor after doctor and injection after injection cannot seem to bring a remedy.
The young member of Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Rock Hill, took to wearing hats year-round until 2010, when she qualified for a free Locks of Love hairpiece.
Inspired, a few Aldersgate members decided to donate their hair to Locks of Love in honor of Tatum. Aldersgate has designated Locks of Love as their February mission emphasis, and they will collect donations for Locks of Love throughout the month in honor of Tatum, which Tatum said makes her feel really happy.
Having hair changed my life, said Tatum, who was well known in the community for her ever-changing array of cute hats. Everyone stopped asking questions, and I could braid my hair!
Now she won t even wear hats when it s cold, her grandmother, Sherilyn Brewer, teased.
Tatum said before she had hair, most people were pretty nice to her. Kids and even some adults would ask her questions, and the attention often made her feel extra special. But sometimes the questions were annoying, or hurtful. She couldn t wear braids, pigtails or ponytails like the other girls. People assumed she had cancer, and she had to worry about being chastised for wearing a hat indoors at school and other places they typically are not permitted. Brewer said Tatum has had to be remarkably strong in fielding questions from kids “ and sometimes even mean-spirited ones who give her a hard time for being different.
Children question what they don t understand, Brewer said.
Once, her mother bought her a wig, but unlike a Locks of Love hairpiece, which is suction-fitted to the scalp, the wig had nothing to attach to “ plus it was made for an adult.
She looked like a 40-year-old 9-year old, Brewer said.
Eventually, the family learned that Locks of Love will donate natural, custom-made hairpieces to qualified children like Tatum.
Her church had already begun to help, pledging to support the family and promising to help raise money to buy Tatum a hairpiece. But hairpieces are expensive “ approximately $2,500 to $3,000, and most children have to have multiple hairpieces throughout their growing years, as their head size changes. Tatum already is outgrowing her first hairpiece, and is beginning the process for her next hairpiece; in March, she will have a mold made of her head from which the new hairpiece will be created. Locks of Love recipients can get up to six hairpieces until they turn 18.
When Tatum was approved by Locks of Love and got her first hairpiece “ a lush, thick, auburn-colored glory that transformed her “ her church was just as excited as she was.
Aldersgate member Janie Matson has been growing her hair out for two years for Tatum. Currently, it is 11 inches long; hair must be 10 inches before it can be donated to Locks of Love.
Watching Tatum grow up in the church, and seeing her become a beautiful young woman who always wanted to wear hats to mask her condition, motivated Matson to grow her hair in honor of Tatum.
She always had the cutest hats to camouflage it, and I m sure it bothered her, but she didn t whine about it, Matson said, who saw a huge change in Tatum after she got her Locks of Love hairpiece. If I was in that situation, (hair) would make me more comfortable; I d feel like I fit in.
Fellow church member Yvonne Lautzenheiser said Tatum always had a smile, but she didn t even want to be seen without her hat on.
I ve seen a lot of people unhappy with a bald head, especially women, said Lautzenheiser, who has a background in nursing. You watch good friends go through chemo and lose their hair, and there s a psychological benefit to know they can be out in public and look like they re normal, to be able to go out without people asking, ˜What s wrong with you?
Lautzenheiser herself has short white hair, but she is donating the long braid she has been saving since it was cut off her head in 1945, as well as two long braids she cut off her daughter, Kay, in the 1980s. The braids have been preserved in a cedar chest and are another way people can donate hair to Locks of Love.
It looks and feels soft, like I just washed it yesterday, Lautzenheiser said, stroking the soft honey-colored strands.
Aldersgate has just been so supportive of Tatum ¦ really incredible, said Brewer, a lifelong member of Aldersgate who is also a special needs teacher. Especially with females, your hair is you. It s so much a part of you, and it s just not fair for this to happen, especia
lly to a girl.
Tatum s brother Andrew, 8, said he likes knowing some of his church family is donating their hair to Locks of Love in honor of his sister.
I think it is pretty cool, Andrew said. It is hard to find people as nice as the people at church.
He said his sister is very happy now that she has hair.
It s kind of like my lazy eye, but I got glasses for it; she has alopecia and got a hairpiece for it, Andrew said. She is a happier human being or sister with it.