Robin Larsen-Vitale’s love for hair began at age 12. When the owners of a salon her sister worked for asked if she would like to help get ready for their Grand Opening, she jumped at the opportunity. This one-time offer turned into a part-time job for the young girl, which eventually led to her love for all things hair and helping. After graduating from a vocational school and obtaining her license, Robin took her passion for art and drawing and her new-found knowledge and put them to work as a stylist.
The client/stylist relationship is very unique. Like a trusted confidant, many clients look at their stylists as not only someone to help them feel good about themselves on the outside, but also as someone to talk to freely, and openly. For the thirty to sixty minutes someone is in the chair, they form a unique bond with the person whose sole purpose at that moment is to make them feel the best they can. In October of 2016, Vitale had a new client sitting in her chair. New to Apex, her client confided in her that she had only been in the area a little over a year, but felt lucky to have a wonderful support group in a community she barely knew. After sharing her gratitude for the Apex community, Vitale recalls the moment she realized that this new client was going to have more of an impact on her than any other in her career. “She told me about her child being diagnosed with cancer and how the treatments were almost over and they would soon be discharged. She said she got so excited when they told her, but then was told that although they were being discharged they would not be able to return home yet and were looking to stay at the Ronald McDonald House in Durham,” Vitale said.
Since 1974, Ronald McDonald Houses have provided lodging, support and education for parents whose children are hospitalized or are going through treatment for any extended period of time. Every Ronald McDonald House provides private bedrooms for each family, home-cooked meals, and playrooms. Many of the homes also include special suites for children with particular needs, education programs, recreational activities and support services.
As Robin continued to talk with this mom, she began to learn more about what the Ronald McDonald Houses offered. “She mentioned feeling lucky after visiting and speaking with some of the residents there because many were from out of state and hundreds of miles away from home.” That was all it took for Robin to want to do more. “That is the moment the seed was planted. I thought to myself that I want to help. What can I do to help these displaced people?” Once the seed was planted, there was no stopping Robin from going forward.
Soon after, Robin contacted the volunteer coordinator for the Durham Ronald McDonald House and decided to combine her love for hair and her passion for helping, and thus was born Project Happy Hair. With the blessing of the volunteer coordinator, Robin got to work. The idea behind Project Happy Hair is to give the parents an opportunity to take just a few moments for themselves in between hospital and doctor visits. Although there have been other stylists to lend their talents to the residents, there has never been a permanent fixture that people can form that bond with. A few weeks after getting approval, Robin “set up in the community room [at the Ronald McDonald House] with a tarp on the carpet, a regular sitting chair, and a rolling tray. I brought every iron, comb, capes, products and just about anything I could fit into my suitcase.” The first few weeks were a huge success and Robin got a taste of what she wanted to accomplish. “I was immediately hooked. I started volunteering at least one to two times per month,” she said.
Although a good start, Project Happy Hair wasn’t everything Robin knew it could be…yet. “I really wanted to offer more to the residents and that is when I teamed up with Stephanie Whigham, the family care manager at the house. I asked if there was any vacant space in the house, even a large closet, that would have access to water and power. I was soon told they had a space in mind. It was perfect and much larger than I thought,” she said. Now that she had the space, all she needed was the equipment. After starting an online fundraiser, Robin was able to raise enough money to purchase the wet station, chair and other equipment and products she needed. Although short of her $2,000 goal, it seemed higher powers were hard at work to make sure Project Happy Hair had a happy ending. After work began on completing her on-site salon, Robin was asked to meet with the administrative team. “I was asked how I felt about honoring a boy named Austin, who fought the good fight, but had passed. His grandmother wanted to do some kind of memorial in his honor.” A lover of Mohawk hair, Austin used a specific gel called Gorilla Glue, and it seemed like the perfect fit. With the help of all those that wanted to honor Austin’s memory, the Project Happy Hair space was completed in August of 2017.
Now that the work is done, the fun can begin! “Now that the salon is complete, I am able to give the residents a full salon experience,” Robin said. Clients can enjoy such services as conditioning treatments, blow dry styles, haircuts and color. “There really isn’t any limit now,” Robin said. This proud mother of two never has a lack of excited parents ready to take full advantage of her amazing gift. “I generally volunteer for five hours, taking appointments every 45 minutes. I am able to see about six to eight residents. I usually arrange color and other services on other days after consulting with each resident one-on-one.”
With as much as Robin is giving, she is receiving so much more in return. “One of the greatest gifts I have received is a purpose. I have had a huge purpose of being a mother to my two children, Skylar, a high school senior, and Raven, a high school sophomore. They are now spreading their wings and becoming more independent by the day. When I started this project over a year ago, I asked my children and husband how they felt about it. They all replied ‘Go For It!’ so I did!”
Robin’s mission doesn’t end there. Although proud of the work she has started, Robin says that this is only the beginning, “I would love to see a Happy Hair salon in every Ronald McDonald House. First and foremost, I would like to see the current space utilized at least once or twice per week; not just by me, but by my fellow artists.” Robin is currently seeing HeARTISTS to donate a few hours at their convenience. In addition to adding to the team, there is a current fundraiser going with its main purpose being the purchase of a massage chair and possibly a pedicure chair for future salon space. If you are interested in volunteering your time or making a donation, you can visit youcaring.com for more information.
When a child is sick or injured, a parent’s world stands still. Nothing else matters. Nothing else exists. Every inconsequential decision is put off and the only thing that matters is that child. But once the initial steps are taken and a plan is in place, it is the parent that needs some attention. In order to go on, in order to be strong. Robin Larsen-Vitale is taking her talents and passions and is using them to support those who need it the most, one haircut at a time.