The Lipstick Project puts a pretty face on illness

Those involved with the Lipstick Project, a volunteer-driven charity providing free, professional spa services to terminally ill patients of all ages, aim to give those they serve one good day.

“We know that we’re not saving lives or anything like that. Our aim is to bring a little bit of light and love and comfort to someone who is facing significant health challenges in what can be a scary part of their life,” says founder and executive director Leigh Boyle.

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The Vancouver-based 27-year-old established the Lipstick Project in 2012, though its roots go back to 2011. From 2010 to 2011, Boyle worked full time as a communications officer for Imagine1day, an international nonprofit agency focused on education, in Mekelle, in northern Ethiopia.

Interested in volunteering in the community on her days off, Boyle connected with an area women’s hospital. While her help was warmly welcomed, she was unsure what she had to contribute to the women’s happiness, considering she didn’t speak their language and came from a different cultural background. Her girlfriends suggested she offer the patients manicures.

“I’m not skilled in that way, but I thought, yeah sure, that could be a cool way to connect with people, and just sort of take care of each other and be compassionate towards each other and it really worked well,” says Boyle, who also serves as a development officer for the Union Gospel Mission in the Downtown Eastside.

She was further inspired to launch the organization because right before she moved home in 2011, a family friend had passed away at the North Shore Hospice. One of the woman’s last requests had been to have her hair and nails done.

For the name of her organization, Boyle turned to a story she recalled reading while in university, an excerpt from the diary of Lt.-Col. Mervin Willett Gonin. He had been one of the first British soldiers to liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. He wrote about the horrific conditions of those held captive and their sheer lack of basic necessities. He also noted the transformative effects of the arrival of a large crate of lipstick, bringing the people back to life by rejuvenating their sense of individuality.

The Lipstick Project is partnered with and serves patients identified by staff through the North Shore Hospice Society, Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, Vancouver Hospice Society, B.C. Children’s Hospital and Ronald McDonald Family House of B.C.

Services offered include: haircuts, updos, washes and trims, manicures and pedicures, makeup applications and different types of massages.

Approximately 100 people volunteer with the program annually, however more are needed. They’re looking for beauty professionals, including hair stylists, estheticians and massage therapists, though interested community members not skilled in those areas are also welcome to come on board and help with more administrative duties. Sessions are typically held Monday afternoons, once or twice a month, for approximately three hours. “There’s no worries if you’re not familiar with hospice care or necessarily what we’re all about. What we’re looking for are people who have a heart for contributing to the community and who are willing to learn,” says Boyle. “It’s a very supportive team-based program,” she says.

Victoria Steele has been volunteering with the Lipstick Project since 2013. She serves as a team leader at the North Shore Hospice, overseeing volunteers and ensuring things run smoothly for all involved during sessions. She was motivated to get involved with the organization in the wake of her father Tom’s passing at the North Shore Hospice in December 2012 at age 64 after a decade of battling various forms of lymphoma. During her father’s time there, it became abundantly clear that, in the last days of someone’s life, it’s the little things that are truly important and bring comfort and peace, she says.

Steele is pleased to be able to return to the hospice and give back to other patients and families facing similar challenges.

“It was something that I really wanted to be a part of because it meant a lot to my family when there were people at the hospice helping us,” she says. “It was a comforting feeling knowing that people were there for you,” she adds.

For more information on the Lipstick Project, visit thelipstickproject.ca.

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