Mario’s Closet at LMH Health is about more than just wigs
photo by: LMH Health
Mario’s Closet at LMH Health is best known for providing wigs and other hard-to-find items to people fighting cancer. But for patients and their families, the volunteers and intangible resources that it provides matter just as much.
“We don’t just offer wigs, we offer support,” said Lauren Cobb, LMH Health Volunteer Services manager. “When people are in the thick of it and have gone through hell and back, Mario’s Closet is a place of support and comfort for them.”
Mario’s Closet was created after the Mario V. Chalmers Foundation, created by the former KU basketball star, made a $25,000 donation to the LMH Health Foundation. Chalmers was inspired by his longtime friendship with Paul Peterson, whose mother died of breast cancer in 2006, and his goal in creating Mario’s Closet was to make cancer patients feel like themselves again.
In 2011, Mario’s Closet debuted at LMH Health and started serving people receiving treatment for cancer and other serious illnesses. The store stocks a diverse array of resources that patients might need to feel more confident and comfortable, and it serves not only patients and families in Lawrence, but also some in Topeka and Kansas City.
The closet partners with local vendors to offer additional products for patients and customers beyond what is found in the shop, including CritiCare, which provides items such as prosthetics or compression garments. Mario’s Closet also partners with a local cosmetologist and wig specialist who helps customers who want a specific style or fit of wig.
One of the most sought-after and visible resources Mario’s Closet provides is wigs. If a patient meets the requirements, they can receive one free wig every 12 months, up to three in total. The main requirement is that the person receiving the wig must have a condition that results in hair loss, whether it’s something like alopecia, a side effect of a medication or cancer treatment, or even stress.
“Wigs are incredibly expensive, so it is a big deal to be able to offer them for free,” Cobb said.
In the past, the closet relied on donations from community members for its wig stock. Every once in a while, a cancer survivor or family member would donate wigs to be refurbished and given to people in need.
But recently, the closet received a lot of newly made wigs in a variety of styles and textures, donated by the American Cancer Society.
“Refurbished wigs can be a bit more worn and loved, but the American Cancer Society ones are new,” Cobb said. “The magical thing about the donation is it allows us to offer more.”
In the past year, Mario’s Closet has given 26 wigs to people in need, and it does its best to stock things that might be more difficult to find, such as wigs made by Coils to Locs, a supplier that focuses on “coily, curly synthetic wig styles for Black women or any woman with textured hair,” according to its website.
The closet also has other items geared toward cancer patients. Its web page says it offers products like mastectomy bras and prostheses “to target the physical effects of cancer treatment,” but it also can help patients fight less-visible symptoms with products such as Psi Bands, a special acupressure wristband that combats nausea. There are also cards, journals, inspirational gifts and other things for people who might be grieving or going through a rough time in their life.
While the physical items that Mario’s Closet offers are important, the emotional support its volunteers provide is just as essential in helping patients heal. Many of the volunteers are cancer survivors themselves, and they understand the struggles that the people who shop at Mario’s Closet might be going through.
“When I was going through cancer, there wasn’t any place to go to get a wig,” said longtime volunteer Mary Higgins. “It wasn’t convenient, and it was very stressful. There was no one-on-one connection like we have at Mario’s Closet.”
Cobb said an important part of the closet’s mission is that it’s accessible to anyone who needs it. Patients and community members can request assistance with additional resources through the Mario’s Closet Assistance Fund, and Cobb said the staff works closely with the LMH Health Cancer Center to identify those who need prosthetics, medical equipment or a special kind of wig — and also people who might not be able to afford these items on their own and need financial assistance.
“We are going to go to bat for you,” Cobb said. “If we don’t have what you’re looking for here, we will connect you to someone who does.”
Most importantly, Mario’s Closet lends an ear to all who walk through its doors and does its best to get them the help they need.
“I’ve found that people don’t realize that we are here,” Cobb said. “It’s sharing our story and mission that helps people know that they are not alone.”
— Kade Han is the social media and digital communications specialist at LMH Health, which is a major sponsor of the Journal-World’s Health section.