By Jennifer Kirby
The story of Jessica Ekstrom’s passion for using headbands to fight childhood cancer starts with her internship as a college freshman at Walt Disney World.
“That’s how I became connected with Make-a-Wish,” the foundation that grants wishes for children diagnosed with life-threatening medical conditions, she explains. “Disney World was the most popular wish for a child, and I got to photograph the kids and their families. I just really fell in love with their mission and their cause and how strong these kids were.” It made such an impression that she later signed on for a summer internship with the Make-a-Wish Foundation of Central and Western North Carolina.
At Make-a-Wish, she spent time with hundreds of “wish kids,” taking day trips to visit them at home and bring them their favorite toys. One day, as she pulled her hair into a ponytail, she thought about the many girls she’d met who had lost their hair to cancer.
“I saw how much losing their hair had an impact on their self-esteem and confidence,” she says. “Being a young girl presents many struggles with self-esteem already, and losing their hair as a result of a life-threatening illness is traumatic. Not only do they have to face the risk of losing their lives, they feel that they lose a part of their feminine identity.”
Headbands struck her as a great way for these girls “to keep their feminine identity and have a constant reminder that they’re not alone.” In April 2012, she started Headbands of Hope to “spread hope in all girls and fund research for childhood cancer, one headband at a time.”
For each headband sold, Headbands of Hope gives a headband to a girl battling cancer and donates $1 to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which funds more in childhood-cancer research grants than any organization except the U.S. government.
The need is great. Cancer kills more children in the U.S than all other diseases combined, according to Ekstrom, and although research over the past 40 years has raised the overall cure rate to about 80 percent, many types of childhood cancer remain very difficult to cure. “A lot of people think that children with cancer can be treated as small adults – just a lesser dose of medicine – but that’s not the case,” Ekstrom says. “The cancers strike kids differently and they are in a crucial stage of development, which complicates the effects of treatments and can result in lifelong complications.
“Childhood cancer deserves a completely separate area of research. And it’s extremely underfunded. People don’t really want to think about kids with cancer, I believe, and sometimes it’s hard to get the word out … Progress can’t be made without research. Research can’t be done without funding. And funding can’t be done without awareness,” she says. “Headbands of Hope aims to start with awareness and end with a cure.”
The Headbands of Hope are made by a company based in Bismarck, N.D., that Ekstrom found on Etsy.com after going through about 15 trial runs with different manufacturers. She collaborates with a team on the many designs. “I kind of just see what’s trending, what people are wearing, what women like to work out in at the gym,” says Ekstrom. “Are they thick, are they thin, do they have patterns or are they solid? And then I work with my design team on new lines and new products. For example, chevron was really popular this spring and summer so we have our new chevron line. I’ve also been known to ask random strangers if I can take pictures of their headbands.”
As a runner and group fitness instructor herself, one of Ekstrom’s priorities is making sure her headbands appeal to athletes. “We have headbands that don’t slip, they’re good for running, they’re efficient, and plus they’re cute and women want to wear them,” she says.
Since graduating from N.C. State in May, Ekstrom’s finally been able to give Headbands of Hope her full-time attention.
“I always dreamed that it would grow at this rate, but with entrepreneurship you never know how responsive people are going to be. I couldn’t be happier with the public support and so many people connecting to my cause and knowing that a simple headband can make such a difference in these girls’ lives,” she says.
“I started building Headbands of Hope when I was 19. I’m now 21, and have been able to impact thousands of girls’ lives. It just really shows that you’re never too young to start something that you believe in. So if something grabs you, if there’s a cause that you see, just grab it right back and run with it. You never have to wait for the perfect time, ’cause usually the right time is now.”
Jennifer Kirby is a writer and editor who lives with her husband and two children in Aberdeen, N.C., and agrees with Henry James that “summer afternoon” is the most beautiful pair of words in the English language. Contact her through www.jenniferdarekirby.com.