Tender Loving Flair

A group of young women in Vancouver are working to bring some beauty to the unlikeliest of places.

Leigh Boyle (left) and Natasha Thom at a fundraising event last year.

A touch of lipstick, some brightly painted nails, freshly trimmed hair – all simple, feel-good things that help to brighten one’s spirit, on the outside and within.

Little touches such as these are easily taken for granted, but for patients battling illness in hospital, can add some much-needed colour during otherwise dark days.

It’s an idea that sparked a vision for Vancouverite Leigh Boyle several years ago, when a friend’s mother-in-law was living the last of her days in North Shore Hospice.

“She wanted to have her hair and nails done, and it was a surprisingly hard request to fulfill,” Boyle explained. “She ended up passing without that happening. But we started thinking, if she wanted it, maybe others would want it too. And maybe we would be able to make that happen.”

In 2012, The Lipstick Project was launched, offering free professional spa services to men, women and children who are battling illnesses in hospitals, hospices and other facilities.

As founder and executive director of the organization, Boyle, 27, recognizes the impact such services can have on patients who are facing hardships of an unimaginable kind.

“Sometimes there are things that medicine can’t do for people, and things that medicine can’t heal,” Boyle said of the treatments her charity provides. “It’s pampering for the body, but I think it’s good for people’s souls and their spirits.”

The Lipstick Project has partnered with a number of health-care organizations around the Lower Mainland, including North Shore Hospice Society (the charity’s ‘birthplace’), Ronald McDonald House, Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, Vancouver Hospice Society and BC Children’s Hospital.

The group has a large collection of volunteers, including professional estheticians, registered massage therapists and hair stylists, who visit patients on site, offering free services. Sometimes, Boyle said, it can be something as simple as trimming a patient’s beard or filing their nails. Other times, volunteers will provide makeup applications, hair-styling services or manicures and pedicures.

“A lot of the care we provide is really just helping people to feel a little bit more like themselves, by giving them back a little bit of dignity through those pieces of care that they might not be able to provide for themselves,” Boyle explained.

Along the way, the group has also picked up numerous volunteer professionals – accountants, lawyers, graphic designers, photographers – and this spring, created its first and only staff position.

For Natasha Thom, stepping into the role as director of operations was a natural fit.

Thom, 24, has been involved with The Lipstick Project on a volunteer basis for close to two years, and was drawn to the organization in large part because of her own experience as a patient five years ago.

At the age of 18, Thom was diagnosed with an advanced form of oral cancer. Because she was unusually young for such a diagnosis – oral cancer is most prevalent in middle-aged men – Thom’s medical team was hesitant to treat her with chemotherapy and radiation, instead opting to perform an “aggressive” surgery on the teen.

“They removed about a third of my tongue and did a graft to recreate the portion of tongue that had to be removed,” Thom explained, noting a large portion of the lymph nodes in her neck was also removed. “The surgery was quite intense.”

She spent three-and-a-half weeks in hospital, but the recovery time was more than two months, during which time she had to relearn how to talk and eat.

Six years later, Thom, has a clean bill of health – along with a greater appreciation for what patients in hospital are going through, physically and mentally.

“Having gone through those dark days, when you don’t shower for a few days and you don’t feel like yourself, the mission and vision of The Lipstick Project really rang home for me,” Thom said.

As director of operations, Thom spends half her time making sure the organization’s day-to-day operations are running smoothly, adhering to the group’s policies and procedures.

The other half, Thom said, is spent with patients, accompanying the various teams of volunteers as they visit the hospice and hospital locations to provide their services.

She is also in charge of the group’s special events throughout the community, which include taking part in Children’s Hospital’s annual Camp Day in Squamish, as well as volunteering for the Ronald McDonald House Amazing Journey competition, which took place June 6.

Thom said that although the group has a strong foundation of volunteers, they’re always looking to grow – a sentiment echoed by Boyle, who said dreams of expanding throughout the province and beyond are in the works.

“One of our goals is to one day have chapters in different cities across the country,” Boyle said.

Boyle’s bold vision for The Lipstick Project – coupled with the hard work she and her team has already put into the organization since its launch – landed her on this year’s list of BCBusiness Magazine’s Top 30 Under 30, honouring young entrepreneurs, CEOs and philanthropists.

Boyle, a Trinity Western University communications graduate, said it was an honour to be among other young movers and shakers, and to introduce her brainchild to a grander audience.

“Every year the BCBusiness list is full of so many interesting entrepreneurs and people who take chances and risks,” Boyle said. “I’ve always read the list and been inspired by those people myself, so it was a very humbling experience to be included on it as well.”

Although The Lipstick Project is not a business per se, Boyle and her team have long strived to exude the utmost professionalism in all aspects of their organization, given the nature of what it is they’re providing.

“We’re meeting people in a really vulnerable time in their lives,” she said. “Our responsibility to our clients is that we know what we’re doing and that we’re good at what we do, and that they can trust us.”

Having recently taken a position as fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Clubs of the South Coast of B.C., it’s clear that Boyle gravitates towards work that allows her to contribute to the greater good in the community. However, that wasn’t something she intended on doing, rather, “it just happened,” after she landed jobs in Swaziland and Ethiopia after graduating from college.

“I never set out for a career like this,” she said. “I just walked through doors as they opened, and was really lucky to be given a few amazing opportunities early on in my career.”

Thom, on the other hand, has known for some time that her life path will continue along the lines of helping others.

She’s currently studying global stewardship at Capilano University, in the hopes of continuing to work in the non-profit sector in the years to come, perhaps on an international level.

And as someone who knows first hand what it’s like to be fighting a life-threatening illness, feeling drained physically and emotionally, and constantly poked and prodded by doctors and nurses, she says the value of what The Lipstick Project offers shouldn’t be understated.

“Some people may think our ambition is sort of superficial, because we’re providing hair and makeup for people,” Thom said.”But for us, it’s really about a sense of uniqueness and creating that human touch with people who are in situations that are very difficult.”

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