Special report: Stephanie's final gift | News
(WZZM) - Combing, blowdrying, and styling your hair is part of most people's everyday routine. But for some people with an illness or medical condition, having hair is something they long to have.
That's where a Michigan organization steps in, offering free wigs to children with hair loss.
Stephanie Smereka was a talented singer and competitive swimmer, who graduated in the Top 10 of her class at East Kentwood and earned a president's scholarship to Hope College. She was able to accomplish all of this even while battling stage four metastatic rhabdomyosarcoma.
She was diagnosed on April 22, 2012. Her mom, Pamela Smerek explains, "It's a soft tissue cancer. It doesn't show up in blood work or anything like that."
Her parents Robert and Pamela watched as their bright and outgoing daughter became increasingly sick. "Her immediate reaction - let's get fighting this. Let's get whatever you have to do, do it. She never, never complained once to us," recalled Pamela. "She never said 'why me?' That's the kind of kid she was. She was always thinking of other people. (She) was always able to put herself in someone else's shoes and if this would help somebody else, then I'm happy to do it."
As soon as her hair started to fall out due to treatment, Stephanie and her parents learned about Children With Hair Loss. "She said I want to donate all I can to somebody else. So she donated her hair," said Pamela.
It's a decision her older sister, Julie says she admires. "It was such a grown up decision; a very, very grown up decision at 17 to do something that I don't think I could even do it at 23."
Sharon Potter, a Children With Hair Loss volunteer says she arrived at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital ready to cut her hair. But on this particular day, Stephanie experienced an adverse reaction to the medication she was taking and was having a seizure and eventually turned Potter away.
"When I went home from the hospital, I couldn't get her off my mind. The next day Stephanie called me and she was in tears. She said to me, 'I'm very, very sorry... I knew you were upset because you couldn't do what you wanted me to do and I'm so so sorry. Please could you come back today. I really need hair for my graduation'," says Potter.
So as Stephanie donated her hair, Children with Hair Loss rushed to make her a wig with someone else's hair... right in time for graduation. Shortly after, the cancer had spread to her brain.
On May 8, 2013 Stephanie took her last breath.
"My child was so surrounded by love on her last day and everyday she loved was there," said Pamela.
As for the wig made especially for Stephanie, her mom says they have it and want to use it for good. "I want to donate it back so hopefully someone can use, reuse the hair or the wig. I want it to go on and help some other young girl."
A painful decision her sister didn't initially support. Julie says, "I'd like to think it's a part of her and it's just one more part that's going away, and I would hate to think that one day in this house there would be nothing. It's what Steph would have wanted."
And so on this day, as the family gathered around the kitchen table sharing stories of her life, they are fully aware of what's to come with the conversation comes to a close.
Accoring to Potter, "For the meantime, it will be for somebody who needs it right now and maybe can't wait."
A parting moment for a mother still grieving the loss of her daughter as she passes the wig into Potter's arms. "I hope somebody wears it in good health and loves it as much as Steffy did."
And for the Smerekas, that's the comforting thought they need to help them in their journey of closure: that something that was part of Stephanie in her final days will be given to another girl, because it is what Stephanie would have wanted.
Sharon Potter continues to travel to the 9th floor of the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital to take donations and makes molds on Mondays. She's named her volunteer time her "Stephanie Rounds"
If you'd like to donate, a fundraiser is happening on Wednesday, November 27 at Salon Nouveau from 9a.m. - 2 p.m. 100% of the proceeds of all services will all go to Children With Hair Loss.