The first time Syamala Samanthula, an analyst on the JCPenney Customer and Supply Chain Engineering team, donated her hair to children with cancer was by chance. Having moved to Fort Worth, Texas, from Portland, Oregon, in 2000, she quickly discovered that Texas heat and her below-the-waist locks weren’t compatible.
“It was too hot for me to manage my long hair,” she laughed. While at the salon, a hairdresser asked if she’d be interested in donating her 17 inches of hair they’d cut off, and she agreed.
While that was the first time she’d ever considered the idea, it wouldn’t be the last. In 2016, Syamala’s daughter began growing out her hair for her upcoming arangetram, a recital focused on the Indian classical dance form of Bharatanatyam. She asked Syamala to grow hers out as well so they could donate together. Sold on the idea, Syamala donated her hair for a second time in 2018.
“In the back of my mind, I wanted to try and donate again one more time after that,” she said. “I wanted to do it for a third time.”
Turn of Events
Syamala’s plan was simple enough: In 2018, she began growing out her hair with the intention of cutting and donating it in the summer of 2020. Her plans changed, though, after being diagnosed with breast cancer on April 1, 2020.
“The entire world is dealing with the Coronavirus, and I was dealing with my own illness,” Syamala said. “I don’t know if it was denial or shock, but it wasn’t something I expected at all.”
The news was tough for Syamala’s team members as well. “Being diagnosed with breast cancer is difficult on its own,” said Diane Padgett, director for Customer and Supply Chain Engineering. “Being diagnosed and having to start treatments during a pandemic, it just made my heart sink for her.”
Though her world had been turned upside down, Syamala remained steadfast in her plan. “I really wanted to donate before I lost my hair,” she said. “For two years I’d been thinking of how to donate my hair. There are kids out there who’d really enjoy having a wig from my hair.”
With chemotherapy beginning in early May, Syamala wanted to have her hair cut as quickly as possible. The trouble was, salons in Texas were still closed at this time due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) – not to mention the fact that Syamala is immunocompromised and must avoid being out in public as much as possible. That’s when she turned to Diane for advice to see if a JCPenney Salon associate might be able to help, and Diane sprang into action.
After working with internal Salon partners, Diane had some good news for Syamala: They’d received personal approval from CEO Jill Soltau to open the JCPenney salon at our store in Fairview, Texas, a day early so Syamala could have the place to herself.
“That was the moment when I felt extra special,” Syamala said. “You feel wanted. That was the priceless thing for me.”
The team in Fairview ensured everything was squeaky clean prior to Syamala’s arrival on May 15, the day after her second chemotherapy session. “I wanted to donate the maximum amount possible since I knew I’d be losing my hair,” Syamala said. Working with Salon Manager Oscar Tienda, the pair decided on a pixie cut after cutting 14 inches of Syamala’s hair.
“Some of my friends asked why I didn’t just keep my hair to make a wig for myself,” Syamala said. “But I’ve been thinking this whole time about making a wig for another child. Not even once did it strike me to keep the hair for myself.”
It’s that generosity of spirit that strikes Oscar. “I was very impressed with how positive she was,” Oscar said. “I felt so much in my heart when she still wanted to help someone else that was in the situation she is in now.”
These days, Syamala wears a buzz cut after losing large portions of her hair, yet the experience she had with her JCPenney family most definitely left a mark. “When I’m done with cancer, I want to go back and take pictures with Oscar and tell him again how special I felt,” she said. “No matter what, my motto is ‘pray, fight, win’ and this could be for all walks of life, for anything – not just cancer.”