Emily Shoup held in her hand what looked like nearly a foot of shimmering, honey-colored wheat and admired it as if it were spun gold.
"Look how thick that is," said Shoup, her eyes wide with enthusiasm. "That will make a nice wig."
To someone soon, those strands will be more valuable than gold.
What looked like harvested wheat was actually 10 inches of amber blonde hair, clipped from a donor during Hair for Hope, a recent event sponsored through the West Cabarrus YMCA. The hair collected will be sent to Locks of Love, an organization that provides wigs for children who suffer from hair loss.
For Shoup, the event organizer, the cause is deeply personal. Memories of her best friend, Mindy, who had patches of hair fall out while battling leukemia, have stayed with her all these years. "She used to wear a Paddington Bear yellow rain hat, no matter what the weather," said Shoup.
Since her friend's passing as a child, Shoup, 33, has donated her hair on four occasions. She wishes Hair for Hope becomes an annual event so others will have more options than just a floppy hat.
Graphic designer Bob Morgan, one of the participants, spoke to Shoup as the hairdresser on hand freed several inches of his caramel-colored hair with her scissors. Dealing with a disease like cancer is devastating enough for children, he said. The ridicule from hair loss they might face on the playground seems like a second blow.
Morgan, a Grizzly Adams kind of man with a gentle heart, has donated before, and plans to continue. "It grows anyway," he said, "with absolutely no effort on my part."
Like Morgan, Jennifer Hamilton has also donated in the past. Although she loves her long dark hair, the thought of a girl having nothing to run a brush through pushes her to go short again.
Many other organizations will accept donated hair, but Locks of Love stands out to Hamilton, 26, because it provides wigs for children only. "That was a big part in my decision," she said.
Since 1998, Locks of Love has provided between 300 and 400 wigs each year to kids under 21. Each of the thousands of ponytails they receive must be at least 10 inches long and free from bleach. Donated hair may be otherwise color-treated or permed.
Each wig takes from six to10 ponytails to make, and at retail would cost between $3,500 and $6,000. Wigs through the charity are offered free or on a sliding scale to applicants.
Many of the children suffer from hair loss through cancer treatments, like Shoup's friend, Mindy. Others have lost hair from burns, accidents, dog attacks, and skin disorders.
"I don't like the idea of kids being picked on for something they have no control over," Morgan said.
Whatever the reason, the loss of self-esteem usually goes with it. Each wig is specially molded for each child with a vacuum seal, so kids don't have to fear them falling off. They can swim, run, or go to typical events like the prom, worry-free.
That's worth much more than the value of gold.