BEAUTIFUL GESTURE: How a Chicago Jewish woman singlehandedly organizes salons across the country to provide a special day for cancer survivors

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Barbara Paget’s family did not have a track record of working for charitable causes. The Highland Park senior citizen was not a classical activist in her youth. And she never lost a close relative to the diseases whose survivors she champions.

Paget, 73, just does, period. She has mastered the art of the cold call, a forbidding task to the majority of the population. And the end result is scores of people battling illness across the United States and Canada have their lives brightened annually simply because Paget does not easily get off the phone.

Paget’s Cancer Survivor Beauty and Support Day, marking its 15th anniversary on Tuesday, June 5, has enlisted hundreds of salons, retailers and beauty schools to donate manicures, hair styling and other services to cancer survivors.

Paget has crafted the event almost all by herself, without a supporting organization and while using old-school methods. All her contact information is stored on index cards with annual updates color coded by markers. She hops on the phone, one by one, to call a prospective participant for Beauty and Support Day.  Paget knows how to work an IPhone and has set up a basic web site.

“I did not know how to turn on a computer in 2003, but I finally learned,” she said.

Barbara Paget coordinates the effort the old fashioned way, with index cards and color coded lists.

During a recent visit, she juggled the traditional volunteer’s lifestyle. Six banana-chocolate cakes baked in her oven for an upcoming family event. Lucette, her 10-year-old black toy poodle, warily checked out a male visitor before deciding he’s kosher. The index cards and other papers were stacked on a table otherwise used for entertaining. Pride filled the room as another Beauty and Support Day came together.

Having made several recent TV appearances promoting this year’s event, she said “I’m getting all the applause. The reporters are interviewing me. But a lot of the applause should go to these places that are (participating in Beauty and Support Day) without even knowing me. They just heard from me on the phone. I haven’t met these people (all over two countries). Yeah, I know the people (at salons) in Highland Park. The fact they take part in it, they deserve a tremendous amount of credit. They’re doing it because they feel it’s a great thing to do.

 

“I’ll be honest, I do feel I’ve accomplished something great.  I have fabulous places taking part. And when I call them (to renew their participation), they remember me from year to year. I find that amazing. I called a business and if the owner is not there, I’ll call on the cell phone. They’ll say, ‘I knew you’d be calling me.’

“I have no salesmanship. I call, say I’m Barbara Paget and I’m the founding chairman of Cancer Survivor and Beauty Support Day. It is the only event of its kind in the country.”

Paget does not fund-raise. She puts her own pocketbook and sweat equity into her organizing work. She described Beauty and Support Day as a “purely volunteer event with no monies being raised and with no solicitations being made on that day or at any other time of the year. Unless a cancer survivor posts on Facebook, no one is ever privy to those survivors who participate in the day. Thousands of volunteers from the spa, beauty and related industries freely give their support and services on this day to all cancer survivors.”

Granddaughter Stefanie Paget working on getting the information to high school students.

Continuing her phone pitch to prospective participants, Paget will reference Congressional Resolution 904, originally introduced by Bob Dold, her congressman, and recently updated by Rep. Brad Schneider, declaring the first Tuesday of each June Cancer Survivor and Beauty Support Day.

Paget is almost unstoppable. She has snared the support of Great Clips, the 4,300-outlet-strong styling chain without any company-owned stores. The all-franchisee operation nevertheless went along with the recommendations of the corporate office in Minneapolis to participate in the Beauty Support Day. The connection with Great Clips has gotten her into Canada. Paget hopes to expand into Israel if she can network herself properly.

She refuses to offer a pre-fabricated program for participants.

“I tell them you do what you want,” Paget said. “I don’t even know what (each outlet) does. I tell them you do what you can do financially. You can offer a manicure, a pedicure or a massage. If you could only afford to change the (nail) polish, fine. Do you want to just keep it for your own clients who are cancer survivors? Each place can get publicity in their local community if they want. That’s my pitch.”

Paget basically trained herself in the passion of helping cancer survivors. Daughter of Philip, an optometrist, and Esther Natoff, she was born at Michael Reese Hospital in 1944. The Natoffs were not particularly religious or involved in community or charitable activities.  “We belonged to a Conservative synagogue, but we were three-days-a-year Jews,” she said. “I was not bat mitzvahed and I wasn’t even confirmed.”

One day, Barbara was asked to go door-to-door to collect for muscular dystrophy. “Here I’m a kid, not doing much, and I did it,” he said. “Did I know what muscular dystrophy was?”

A precocious child, Paget attended the University of Chicago Laboratory School, graduating at 16. At 15, applying to college, the school recommended she begin at a small school, so she went to Stephens College, which was then an all-girls two-year school. She transferred to The University of Illinois, where she graduated with honors with a double major, speech and theatre, and a double minor, English and education. Paget was a member of the honorary fraternity, Zeta Phi Eta. She then studied speech therapy and audiology at Columbia University in New York, where she met future husband Robert Paget. They married in 1966.

Paget with a cancer survivor getting a facial treatment.

Paget’s early ambition was law school at a time when women did not flock to the law. Practically the only TV role model was Bette Davis playing a defense attorney, filling in for an ill Raymond Burr in the lead role on a 1963 “Perry Mason” show.

“My mother discouraged me from going to law school,” Paget said.

“I once got a parking ticket at the University of Illinois. They said I parked in a no-parking zone. I went back out and there was no sign. So I contested it. I won. The judge said I ought to be a lawyer. I said I’d like to be.”

Robert and Barbara Paget settled in Deerfield, then Highland Park. They raised two children, David and Jennifer. When her children were grown, Barbara began volunteering at Highland Park Hospital. She was associated with a physician, stricken with cancer, who still faithfully ran a once-a-month cancer-support group. She was in charge of getting speakers and entertainment for the program.  Paget got the message about commitment when the ill doctor drove through a blizzard from his Arlington Heights home to the hospital against his wife’s wishes.

“His wife asked him if anyone showed up,” Paget said.  “And he said yes. Someone did. ‘I helped someone,’ he said. That stuck with me. That is a big mantra to me. I don’t care how many places I have. People are getting helped, even if just one person (per outlet).”

Paget became active in breast-cancer programs.  She wrote and published a flyer for the Y-Me National Breast Cancer Organization, “You Do Not Have to Have Cancer to Have Questions or Need Support.” Paget chaired a Mother’s Day walk for 24,000 participants. She modeled in a fund-raising fashion show. When Saks Fifth Avenue opened a boutique store in Highland Park, she represented Highland Park Hospital and cut the opening ribbon. As a result, she was asked to chair Key to the Cure, raising a vast amount of money for the hospital.

The concept of her own program was not original – but was expanded far beyond its one-shop origins.

“I learned about a salon in northern California where so many of their clients were being treated for cancer that the owner decided to have a spa day for cancer survivors,” Paget said. “Thinking that was such a wonderful idea, I went to (her own Highland Park salon) and asked the owner if she might also support a spa day for cancer survivors. We had a spa evening with everyone from the salon volunteering, all of the available appointments quickly filled up and there was a waiting list of cancer survivors hoping to participate. At that first spa evening, I quickly realized that this was not only about the complimentary service being provided but, for the survivors it was a special moment of support and bonding.”

The annual day ran for three years starting in 2003, then expanded to eight other salons in the area thanks to the help of Highland Park City Council member Terry Olian.

A succession of events put multiple Yellow Pages listings into Paget’s hands. She saw numerous listings for the Great Clips chain. The first outlet she called resulted in a reference to Jim Petrovich, who ran Great Clips’ Illinois co-op advertising program. Petrovich was sold immediately, enlisting all Great Clips outlets in the state. Soon she had the ear of Great Clips corporate executives. Meanwhile, a major franchisee was stricken with cancer. The company created a Clips for Kindness program in which cancer-treatment patients can have their hair, falling out due to medical care, cut off privately. Paget’s program became part of Clips for Kindness.

With Alaska her last frontier in hitting outlets in all 50 states, Paget Googled and called a salon up north. With her style, she clinched the full U.S. coverage.  Paget further expanded by calling the major beauty schools.

Paying out of her pocket for the program, her rewards are few, but impactful when experienced as cancer survivors find out who she is.

“They rave,” she said. “I only meet them around here. People are hugging me.

“I was walking on Oak Street (downtown) and someone came up to me saying ‘You are an angel.  The angels in heaven will welcome you with open arms. It is so phenomenal what you do.’ And I responded: ‘I said thank you, but I’m not ready to meet those angels quite yet.’

While working more family members into her quest  to further build Beauty and Support Day, Paget desires additional backing from the national political apparatus than a just a resolution from Dold and Schneider. She has left messages for House Speaker Paul Ryan.

“I would love to see more done in Washington for it,” she said.

“I’d like to see it as such an established thing that it wouldn’t matter if I ran it. The first Tuesday in June, that’s what you do. I’m actually thinking of calling the White House.”

The mansion’s occupant is fortunate he has an army of phone filters guarding him. Otherwise, he’d hear a determined Paget’s voice breaking through the defense.  She is not easily deterred, and has a special June day as a firm selling point as a testament to her effectiveness.

Cancer  survivors are encouraged to email Paget at bnp@cancersurvivorbeautyandsupportday.org to find out the names and telephone numbers of salons closest to where they live so that they can be contacted and added to the participation list.

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