It was an otherwise ordinary Monday morning when Mia Phillips walked in to her fifth grade class at Black’s Mill Elementary School sporting a beanie cap, her long locks gone, her head shaved.
Then Lili Almazan walked into her classroom the next morning, her long hair gone as well.
The two shaved their heads in support of their friend and classmate Natalie Herndon, who lost her hair to chemotherapy in April.
“I wanted to support Natalie so she wouldn’t feel like she was different or alone,” said Almazan, 11.
The girls decided to donate their hair to Wigs for Kids, a nonprofit organization that provides free wigs to children who have lost their hair from cancer treatment.
“They had a lot of hair to share,” said their teacher, Jessie Venem. Venem said the girls had the longest hair in her class.
Herndon was diagnosed with childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) March 13 and has been undergoing chemotherapy and procedures at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta since then.
“Everyone there is super nice and really helpful,” Herndon said.
It can be tough getting up in the mornings and finding motivation to go to school, Herndon said, as the medicines make her feel ill.
“It’s been kind of hard because I’m not really feeling great during the day and all the medicines and everything have been making me not feel good,” Herndon said. “Usually toward the afternoon I start to feel better. It’s like you wish you felt better in the morning but you usually feel better at night.”
But coming to school and seeing her two close friends covering their buzzed heads with beanies put a smile on Herndon’s face.
“I was really happy and really surprised. It was really nice and sweet of them to donate their hair to the little kids and everyone else without their hair,” Herndon said.
The decision to donate 17 inches of hair was an easy one for 10-year-old Phillips, who thought long and hard about it for two and a half weeks.
“Well I was really scared for Natalie and so I really, I saw her. I could tell how she felt and so I just wanted to support her in any way that I could,” Phillips said.
She thought about her hair and how she didn’t have time in the mornings to do more than just brush it.
“I decided maybe I could just get rid of it and I could donate it and then I would look like Natalie too and so maybe she wouldn’t feel so different,” Phillips said.
Phillips’ mom, Jessica, told her daughter to think over her decision for a few more days in case she changed her mind.
“She thought that I was going to be mad at her because she thought that I would regret it and be mad at her for cutting my hair off and I’m like ‘It would be my fault because I told you to,’” Phillips said.
With no regrets, Phillips’ watched in the bathroom mirror the night of April 22 as her mom snipped her long ponytail off.
“When I looked in the mirror I was like ‘This is not what I imagined but it’s kind of what I imagined’ but like, it was like everything was different after that but different in like what I wanted,” Phillips said. “Like when I put a shirt on I don’t have to pull my hair out of it and now if there’s like I don’t know, hair in the shower or something then I can blame it on my mom because it’s not me anymore.”
Alamazan followed suit, going over to Phillips’ house the next night to have Mia’s mom cut her hair too. When she looked in the mirror and saw the absence of 14 inches of hair, she was shocked.
“I felt a little bit surprised because I used to have such long hair,” said Almazan, who said she had never really had short hair before. “When I looked in like the mirror when I got home I was happy that I did it because I was supporting Natalie.”
Herndon said that when she started losing her hair due to the chemotherapy, she asked her father to shave it so it wouldn’t be all spiky. But she did have a little fun before that.
“When I started losing my hair it got really short (in the front) and just for fun I’d comb it over and call myself Donald Trump,” Herndon said, smiling as she and her friends giggled.
Through it all, Herndon has been coping well and her attitude has been very optimistic according to her mother, Jaime.
Jaime said that Black’s Mill Elementary and Herndon’s classmates have been very supportive of her, and that the school has donated to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Students have brought in food and supplies for the Ronald McDonald Family Room at CHOA, a room completely run on donations. There, families and patients relax, store food from home and get snacks and supplies during hospital stays.
The best friends also have a powerful message for the world about supporting one another and being kind to those who look different.
“It’s important that no matter what people look like, it’s important to treat them the same because you never know what people have been through and, you know, it’s not their fault,” Phillips said.
“Everyone has a story to tell and how what they’ve gone through and like Mia said you don’t really know what they’ve gone through so you can’t judge them or just you don’t know so you can’t be mean or stare or judge them for what they do because sometimes they can’t help it,” Herndon said.
The Herndon family has not set up a fundraising page for Natalie, but they ask if anyone would like to make donations on her behalf to contact April Smith at April.Smith@armhc.org or donate to the Ronald McDonald Room at CHOA.