With half of her hair curled and her eyelids closed to receive a brushing of powdery mauve shadow, Erin Fray looks like any other woman in the midst of a makeover.
But this 32 year-old mother of three has more than her share of trials in the past two years. Diagnosed with breast cancer as she was giving birth to her youngest child, she immediately underwent a double mastectomy. Seven harrowing reconstructive surgeries followed.
With her glowing skin and easy smile, Fray appears to have conquered cancer for good. Then she reveals she had a complete hysterectomy just six weeks ago.
"What I've learned about cancer is that it's a lifelong process," she says of her prognosis. "You don't just have it and get it fixed."
Suffice it to say this lady could use a little pampering. Enter the Survivor Glam Squad, a volunteer brigade of salon owners, hair stylists, make-up artists, photographers and fashion mavens who conspire regularly to give women (and a few men) living with cancer an opportunity to be prettified by professionals.
Founded in the United Kingdom by modeling agent Keely Webster, the Survivor Glam Squad hit American shores in early 2012 when Webster approached model and Savannah Harley-Davidson marketing manager Jennifer Hagan-Smith. Already experienced with glamorous charity work from her foundation Bikini Nation (which provides models for fundraising events), Hagan-Smith embraced the idea of bringing SGS to Savannah.
"The idea of community service has always been instilled in me," says Hagan-Smith. "Everyone is touched by cancer at some point in their lives, whether it's a parent or a grandparent or themselves."
She formed a team for the first Glam Squad event last April, and dozens of survivors received a day of hair and make-up attention along with professional photo shoots. Nominations came pouring in as well as requests for more Glam Squad events in Savannah and beyond.
A tony fundraising gala called the Diamond Ball was held in January at Red Gate Farms' Mackey House in Savannah, and SGS has branched like fast-growing jasmine in every direction ever since: Hagan-Smith has organized makeover events in Virginia, Florida, New York and Maryland and partnered with the Women's Survivors Convention in Nashville, TN for "100 Makeovers In Two Days" later this summer. With so many survivors and willing participants, she and founder Webster realized the potential for a global organization.
"When we heard what it meant for the survivors in Savannah, we thought, 'OK, we're going to need to this everywhere,'" she says.
A system based on self-governing chapters was put into place to provide a way to match up survivors with volunteers, and Savannah serves as the template. Lauren Schoenecker (a Connect sales associate) heads the local chapter, corralling volunteers and arranging events like the upcoming meet-up at B&D Burgers on Abercorn on July 18.
Hagan-Smith continues to develop corporate relationships to grow the scope of the non-profit, like a partnership with international stylist Peter Coppola that will enable monthly SGS makeovers in 750 salons around the world. Survivor Glam Squad is also one of the official charities of the Rock N' Roll Marathon.
"We want to reach as many people as possible," enthuses Hagan-Smith, adding that she and her colleagues are working on a SGS program for men as well as caregivers.
Salon owner Connie Woods of Milan Salon & Day Spa in Richmond Hill has been a Glam Squad volunteer since the group's inception. She styled the hair of multiple survivors before the Diamond Ball and is always ready to launch into action when SGS calls. If chemo treatments or radiation have rendered a woman's hair difficult to style or even non-existent, she provides extensions or other accessories that help enhance their self-image.
"I just love making other people feel good," explains Woods as she wields a curling iron within Wray's short tresses. "These women deserve it after all they've been through."
She stops to consider Fray in the mirror.
"Maybe a few pin curls in front," she muses. Make-up artist Pearl Wood nods in agreement as she dusts Fray's eyelids. As they work, conversation turns from Wray's medical travails to girl talk.
"Do you have anywhere fancy to go tonight?" Wood asks Fray. "Because I'm going to give you a little silver sparkle in the corners."
Fray smiles and says since they already have a babysitter, she can probably convince her husband, a pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Pooler, to take her out to dinner. After all, he's the one who nominated her in the first place.
Fray kept a blog about her experience with cancer called "Joy in the Journey" and counts her faith as the most important aspect of her positive frame of mind. But she admits that receiving a little indulgence has bolstered her view of herself.
"I believe how you feel about how you look on the outside translates to the inside," says Fray as she admires the careful craft of the Glam Squad.
"That's not saying that outer beauty is all there is. It's just that knowing that someone cares this much about you brings out that inner beauty."