- Associated Press - Sunday, September 13, 2020

WAHOO, Neb. (AP) - Rich Joy was his sister’s hero.

“Ever since I was a baby, I always looked up to him,” said Sally Klein of Wahoo. “He was always so sweet to me and he was always there whenever I needed him.”

It was rough when her brother died of cancer in 2018.

Klein’s family had another tough blow in February 2019, when her cousin, Erica Step, died of cancer.

The Fremont Tribune reports that this week, Klein will pay tribute to her loved ones in a unique way.

She’s donating her hair to Locks of Love, a nonprofit organization that accepts these donations to make wigs for children in need with medical conditions that have caused them to lose their hair.

At 55, Klein knows her hair donation is unusual since most donors are younger.

But in the last 15 years, she’s donated her hair four times to organizations that provide wigs to people who need them.

And she’s planning to do it again.

Klein’s hair-growing endeavors began in 2005, when her brother Bill Joy said he’d donated blood for one of his wife’s relatives who had leukemia. Klein wanted to donate but wasn’t able to because she’d just given birth to her youngest son, Joseph.

“I didn’t know what to do, but I wanted to do something,” Klein said.

About a month later, Klein was getting a haircut in Omaha when the stylist asked if she’d ever considered donating her hair.

At that time, Klein’s ponytail was about 7½ inches long, just short of the 10-inch minimum.

So Klein decided to keep growing her hair and donate it in the leukemia patient’s honor.

She donated 10½ inches to Locks of Love, which sent a postcard of thanks. The card said most recipients suffer from an autoimmune disease called alopecia areata. Other recipients are cancer survivors, victims of trauma such as burns and children with other dermatological conditions. The wigs are given free of charge.

That time, Klein’s hair was cut fairly short.

“I had two young boys (Michael and Joseph), so short hair wasn’t a bad thing,” she said.

Klein’s hair began to grow again when one of her Omaha friends, Janet Henry, was fighting breast cancer and lost all her hair during chemotherapy.

Klein decided to grow her hair and donate it in her friend’s honor.

“She was modest and a little embarrassed that I was doing it on her behalf, but she was very pleased,” Klein said.

By that time, Klein was going to Styles Unlimited in Fremont. There, her stylist Denise Taylor mentioned that Pantene was accepting hair donations through its Beautiful Lengths program, which provides free, real-hair wigs to women living with cancer.

The minimum donation was 8 inches. So in 2007, Klein donated 8½ inches of hair to Beautiful Lengths. Her friend had four remissions, but her cancer kept returning and after a 15-year fight she lost her battle.

While she first donated in her friend’s honor, Klein then decided to make another donation - this time in her friend’s memory.

So she donated 16 inches of hair to Beautiful Lengths in 2014.

That was going to be Klein’s last donation.

She figured she was getting too much gray hair.

But as it grew longer, Klein realized she had enough hair to donate again.

She returned to Locks of Love, which takes donations of colored, permed and gray hair in good condition. What it can’t use, it sells to offset manufacturing costs.

Klein’s hair was growing when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“I couldn’t get my hair cut and it really grew a lot,” Klein said.

By the time Klein went to donate her hair on Aug. 28, it had grown past her waistband.

“It was very heavy and very hot,” Klein said, adding that she was wearing her hair in ponytails and French braids.

Klein’s hair was layered with some layers being longer than others. When her hair was cut, it was divided into little ponytails ranging in length from 10 to 113/4 inches long.

She’s put the hair into a plastic bag, which she’ll mail this week to Locks of Love in Lake Worth, Florida.

Some girls and women are sad when they get their hair cut.

But not Klein.

“I know there’s going to be some child who’s going to get a new wig who’s going to look really cute with my hair,” Klein said.

Klein’s donations will be in memory of her brother, Rich, and cousin, Erica.

Her brother was a fun-loving, loyal and devoted family man and a huge Husker fan. Growing up, Klein and her brother played different sports in their family’s huge front yard.

He had a degree in accounting and was in management in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He had just turned 57 years old when he died in October 2018 of pancreatic cancer. He died four months after he was diagnosed.

Klein’s cousin, Erica Step, was diagnosed with stomach cancer after Christmas 2018 and died 41 days later on Feb. 12, 2019. She was 44 years old.

“Family hadn’t really come to grips with my brother’s death when we lost Erica,” Klein said.

Step was an elementary schoolteacher, who lived in a suburb of Dallas.

“She was very kind, very sweet,” Klein said. “She really loved kids and working with kids and had a really good sense of humor, a funny girl, always had a smile and was always there to help out.”

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