ROCKLEDGE, Fla. - Valerie Paul's best friend was aghast at the image in the mirror.
The two worked together at Rockledge Country Club when Audrey Unkle was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer. Chemotherapy took its toll.
"She was very, very much about her hair," Valerie said, sitting in the front room of her Rockledge home recently. "When she lost her hair, she showed me her head one time in the bathroom, and she said, 'I'm so ugly now.' 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.
"I just randomly look for Barbies, and I put 'bald Barbie' in there, and there was a seller that had five bald Barbie heads," Valerie said.
She scooped them up.
"I literally thought, 'OK, if my friend was this anxious about the way she looked, what would I feel like if I was a child going through chemo? Or if 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.
Valerie began taking Barbie bodies and carefully replacing the heads with hairless 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, of Rockledge. Once the pair made an acquaintance, there was no stopping them.
Duo on a mission
"I went to every pediatrician in the Rockledge-Cocoa area, and none of them treat children with cancer," 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.
Talia Joy Castanello, 13, of Orlando, was being interviewed on the comedienne's talk show. The bald, beautiful teen, stricken with terminal cancer, had become an online sensation, sharing makeup tips on YouTube and inspiring more on Facebook. Valerie reached out to her via email and got a response within minutes. Talia received one of the bald Barbies.
"She never wore a wig," Valerie said of the girl who lost her cancer battle in July 2013. "She was a very big inspiration for us."
Wanda said Talia helped raise awareness and more than $100,000 for BASE camp, a Winter Park children's cancer foundation that offers year-round programs for pediatric cancer patients. Valerie and Wanda decided to volunteer at the camp, serving lunch - and Barbies - to patients at Nemours and Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.
They've handed over more than 300 Barbies and 75 sewn baby dolls.
"I love making them," Valerie says. "And they talk to me. They tell me what they want to be. I know that sounds crazy. They literally do, they tell 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."
Valerie is helped by her grandmother, Juanita Barker, 90, who also sews plush dolls for the youngest of cancer patients. "What about babies too young for Barbies?" Wanda said, noting they've turned to a Raggedy Ann/Andy pattern 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's very 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 to see 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.
She was diagnosed with cancer in February 2013. A trip to the pediatrician and a follow-up at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children confirmed Julie had Precursor B-cell lymphoblastic leukemia.
"The first thing she had asked the pediatrician when they told her she might have leukemia was, '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.
"She was very upset," Laura said. Julie's long locks fell out about six to eight weeks later. "Obviously, she's 13 years old, she had hair down her back."
The family was stunned by the outpouring of community support. Laura was bombarded with Facebook messages from people who wanted to help.
The Spurlocks grew especially fond of the bikers.
"I'm not a biker," Laura said. "I had some bikers call me up and say, 'I want to do something for your daughter.' These leather-vested, long-haired, Harley-riding guys just kind of came out and they rallied behind her and supported her."
In the fall, Laura received another Facebook message. This time it was from Wanda and Valerie.
They made sure a special Barbie ended up in Julie's hands, one decked out in faux-leather riding pants, black motorcycle boots, a Harley-Davidson "leatherette" jacket and riding goggles. She's every bit the beautiful biker Barbie. Radiant. Smiling.
She just happens to be bald.
"I thought it was really cool," Julie said, holding onto the doll, still safely encased in its original Collector Edition box. "Everybody thinks Barbies are so perfect and flawless. Seeing one with no hair makes you feel really good about yourself."
Julie is scheduled to wrap up treatment in June 2015.
Laura was incredibly touched by the measure. Seeing stuff like this makes you think, she's beautiful," Laura said of the Barbie. "She doesn't need hair. I think that inspires a lot of these kids."
Not just kid stuff
Wanda is a breast cancer survivor. Last year, she had a follow-up appointment with Dr. Nikita Shah, a medical oncologist with University of Florida Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health. She brought some of the Barbies to donate to an on-campus boutique for breast cancer survivors.
"When I finished the appointment, I said, 'You need to go down to the gift shop and see the Barbies I brought in,'" Wanda said. "She opened the door and said, 'Go down and bring every one of those Barbies to me.'"
The doctor fessed up: "I took them all. Yep."
Shah wanted to hand out the dolls to newly diagnosed adult cancer patients, moms who needed a way to help their children understand.
"So for a woman to explain to her 5-year-old what is going on with her, well, the 5-year-old may not notice anything but the fact that mom loses her hair," 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 she doesn't have is she doesn't have hair. Mom is going to be just like that. 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.
"They just get tears in their eyes," Shah said of her patients as they look at the Barbies. "They kind of give them a visual of what's to come. But then, looking at the Barbie and saying, 'You know what? The Barbie's still smiling. Everything's going to be OK.'"
Check out Wanda and Valerie's Facebook page at facebook.com/ baldbeautifulbarbis or email- baldbeautiful firstname.lastname@example.org.