Seeing beauty in dying: Why volunteering at a hospice is perfect for this cosmetologist

This week’s spotlight: all things death.

On Monday mornings, hair designer Rose Stephens donates her time to help the sick at the Heartland Hospice in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

“If improving their looks with a haircut or style can give them a boost, then I love to help out,” she says. “While I’m there, I try and make them forget about their problems and treat them with the respect they deserve.”

A Milwaukee native, Rose has been doing hair since she was in high school. Having four sisters to pamper and experiment with helped Rose develop her craft.

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Rose in action. (photo courtesy Rose Stephens)

“I love talking with people and I knew I had a special talent early on,” she says.

Volunteering with Heartland appealed to her precisely because of this: they needed someone to make their patients feel rejuvenated and cared for as they approached their final days, and she knew she had a skill to offer.

With her children grown and out of the house, Rose wanted to do something meaningful with her time that scouts and soccer had previously occupied.

Now, she looks forward to her Monday trips to Heartland, as do the patients there. Though she considers them to be more than that—they’re also friends who have impacted her more than she ever thought they would.

“I visited my first client on her birthday and we all sat around and listened to her tell her story,” Rose says. “She was a little girl in the Holocaust and a survivor. Years later when she and her husband came to America by boat in the 1950s, they decided on that voyage they were going to forgive and not live life bitterly. She was really inspiring. I’ve never met anyone like her before.”

Drawing out people’s stories is something Rose is good at. The minute she meets a patient, she’s talking with them like she’s known them forever, putting them at ease. Anyone’s who’s ever been to her salon knows that the human connection with the hairdresser is every bit as important as the haircut or style itself.

It’s what keeps Rose going.

“Now it’s a part of who I am,” Rose says. “As long as Heartland needs me, I’ll be there.”

In Milwaukee and want to volunteer with Heartland? Contact Danielle Ferguson: 4658officestaff9@hcr-manorcare.com.

Do you know someone who’s taking a small step toward making their community better? Email celeste@idealist.org.

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Help an LA actress bring hospice patients' stories onstage

An experiment: can our community’s collective brainpower help an idea become reality?

The intention

Once a week, actress Erica Gerard visits the homes of hospice patients in West Los Angeles. She sits with the patients and does whatever makes them feel comfortable: talk, listen to music, read a book, enjoy the silence, and more. As someone who only buys vintage furniture because of the stories each piece holds, Erica especially enjoys seeing the patients surrounded by all of their belongings.

Erica would love to record and perform their life stories. “People at the end of their lives are some of the most rich, complete and interesting treasures we have access to,” she says. “None of us have been there yet, but we’re going there, so tell us what it’s like.”

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Though her deceased grandmother won't be in the audience, Erica knows she'd be proud: “I can hear her voice saying, 'You’re doing a mitzvah,' which is a good deed." (Photo: Alan Cleaver, Flickr/Creative Commons)

The obstacles

Erica hasn’t started. Here are the barriers she has identified:

  1. Interviewing people in hospice care can be logistically challenging. Her first patient passed away, and her second was unconscious much of the time.
  2. She doesn’t have an end vision of the show yet, and the options about artistic choice, direction, etc. can feel overwhelming.
  3. She prefers collaborative projects to working alone, and so far doesn’t have anybody to bounce ideas off of and propel her forward.
  4. There’s a whole world of medical confidentiality laws and issues she has yet to explore.

How you can help

Erica would to love see this project grow and succeed. Can you offer her any advice?

  • Is this an idea that’s already been done somewhere in the world?
  • What are some interviewing strategies to help draw out specific stories?
  • What have you always wanted to ask somebody who is near the end of life?
  • How should she approach this project so as to share stories without exploiting patients?
  • How can she find allies and resources?
  • What are some ways to stay focused when life’s distractions get in the way?

Leave a comment below or send her a message through Idealist and if the project progresses, we’ll keep you posted!

Do you have an idea that’s just starting to brew? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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