Tragedy spurs efforts to help those who suffer

GROTON – Tragedy in his own family has been the motivating factor for a local businessman who has dedicated himself to helping those diagnosed with cancer.

“This fight strikes very close to home for me,” revealed KC Johnson, whose entire family has succumbed to cancer.

Johnson, owner of the KC Hair Salon located at 30 Hollis Street, is currently amidst the busy season for cancer volunteerism. He participates in the national Locks of Love program, the local edition of Relay for Life, and his own special raffle aimed at raising donations for cancer research.

“I’ve been involved with Locks of Love for ten years now,” said Johnson of his activism. “Last year we did 32 Locks of Love and this year, so far, we’ve done 28. Cancer awareness is really growing in the area.”

Begun in 1997, the Locks of Love program focuses on kids with hair helping other kids less fortunate who have lost their own due to illness or medical treatment. Shorn locks offered by healthy children are donated and used for the creation of natural looking wigs for use by afflicted children.

The effort to get the charity off the ground was started by a retired nurse named Madonna Coffman who had lost her own hair after receiving a hepatitis vaccination. But it was not until Coffman’s daughter suffered the same misfortune years later that she decided to concentrate fully on the creation of wigs intended specifically for children.

Beginning in her garage, Coffman built up the Locks of Love charity, finding sponsors among for-profit wig makers before going independent. Locks of Love began modestly, collecting only enough human hair to make about 20 wigs each year, but since its start, that number has risen to nearly 1,000 annually.

Of all the hair donated to Locks of Love, 80 percent is sent in by children.

“To participate in the Locks of Love program, you have to donate at least ten inches or more of your own hair,” explained Johnson. “Anyone who wants to come in and donate their hair, there’s no waiting and they don’t need an appointment. We’ll cut their hair for free.”

Johnson, a resident of Littleton who has been in business in town for the past five years, said that for young people who would like to do something for other children less fortunate than themselves, often there is not much they can do.

“A lot of the time kids who want to help are so young that they can’t help much with anything,” lamented Johnson. “They have no allowance or other access to money so their hair is often the first thing they have that allows them to participate in the fight against cancer. But after donating it, they feel good about themselves.”

After cutting, Johnson carefully collects the donated hair and packs it for shipping.

“I send all of the hair I collect to Florida,” Johnson said. “The Locks of Love people have called me personally to thank me and to say how happy they are for my participation in the program.

“For myself, I’m just trying to help young people with cancer,” said Johnson. “I like to think that I’ve helped them to be able to go to their 13th birthday party with hair on their heads. For a child without hair, it’s kind of scary. Isn’t it enough that they have to fight cancer too?

“It really touches your heart when you see a 5-year-old battling cancer,” said Johnson. “Someone who’s five years old should be concerned about playing, not about dying.”

For that reason, Johnson has also volunteered his time to participate in the Relay for Life program in which volunteers and cancer survivors walk laps around a local track to raise money for cancer research.

“I did the Relay for Life for the first time last year after I hooked up with the person in charge who asked me if I could set up in a tent and I said I’d love to,” said Johnson. “At the time, I did a total of 22 Locks of Love and 62 regular cuts all for free. I did haircuts for the entire 20-hour event by myself. I cut hair for men, women and children.”

Johnson said he intends to set up shop at this year’s Relay as well, which is being held at Ayer High School the third week in June from 3 p.m. on Saturday to 3 p.m. Sunday. Another Relay will be held at North Middlesex Regional High School in Townsend.

In addition to all that, Johnson also runs his own fund-raising campaign involving a raffle held at his place of business

“Last year we gave away 16 items including free haircuts for a year, a mountain bike, gift certificates to Elio’s Restaurant, the Main Street Caf , Dunkin Donuts, and even Kimball’s Ice Cream,” Johnson said.

“I just went ahead and asked local clients for donations,” said Johnson of how he put things together. “Kimball’s Ice Cream never even asked any questions. The Main Street Caf gave me gift certificates. I just went around asking people to contribute and the whole community was so generous. This year, I hope to double the number of donations.”

Also on hand at KC’s are a number of 2006 calendars for sale for $10 each with proceeds earmarked to further the Locks of Love and Relay programs.

With 18 years of experience in the business and a certificate in cosmetology, Johnson said he has no plans to leave the hair-styling business.

“Being a hair designer is what I do,” said Johnson of his career choice. “It’s a job like anything else and as long as it’s fun, I’ll keep doing it. When it turns into a job, it’ll be time for me to quit.”

Although he has had his share of strange requests (including a recent request for a multi-colored Mohawk) Johnson said the bulk of his business over the years has been strictly predictable.

“I take them as they come,” revealed Johnson as to how he remains unruffled in the face of constantly shifting trends. “I used to live in the little town of Vail, Colorado, and we used to get a lot of snowboarders who have a reputation for wanting haircuts that are out of the ordinary.”

These days however, his shop tends to service a less colorful clientele.

“Family cuts and those for young kids are among the most popular today,” said Johnson of his Groton base. “They want a lot of layers and a lot of movement. For men, the look is still very professional: a very short and very clean cut. For women, it’s lots of layering, highlights and coloring.”

Currently, the KC Hair Salon employs eight stylists including Johnson himself.

But despite his caseload, Johnson always has time to attend to his charitable activities even keeping a can on his desk for any visitors who want to make a spontaneous donation.

“Anyone can make one as long as the shop is open,” said Johnson.