Wendy Levine and her cousin started a national beauty nonprofit in a California garage in 2008. They stockpiled donated Chanel lipsticks and Murad face creams in places where one would expect to find cars and lawn equipment -- and they dropped them into "bags of beauty" that then made their way to patients all over the country.
Levine, who graduated from Duke in 1995 with a degree in history and later became a lawyer, says she was the last person anyone would have expected to co-found the beauty non-profit known as the Beauty Bus Foundation.
"I don’t even wear makeup," Levine said. "But Beauty Bus is about a lot more than just the treatments we provide. It's about providing dignity for people who are dying. It's about providing respite for caregivers. It's about creating volunteers who are more understanding of people with disabilities and people who are sick and really breaking down barriers and creating a more compassionate society. Those are all the reasons I went to law school."
Levine and her cousin Alicia Marantz Liotta launched the Beauty Bus Foundation after Levine's sister Melissa Marantz Nealy died at 28 from a degenerative neuromuscular disease.
When Melissa became homebound due to the disease, Liotta scheduled hairstylists and makeup artists to visit Melissa. Those experiences changed Melissa’s affect -- giving her happiness and even hope in the midst of great pain. Similarly, Levine says the Beauty Bus Foundation helps patients recover their self-image and their sense of dignity in the midst of illnesses that threaten to rob them of both.
The Beauty Bus Foundation provides in-home beauty treatments and grooming services for patients and their caregivers in the Los Angeles area, sets up "pop-up" salons at non-profits and hospitals and has sent bags filled with pampering products (known as "bags of beauty") to more than 15,000 patients and their caregivers across the country to date. Beauty Bus serves women, men and children -- with their youngest client three years old all the way to 101.
"We make them specific to the people we are sending them to," Levine said. “So if it's someone going through cancer treatment, we won't include hair products. If they are finishing cancer treatment, then we’ll include hair regrowth products."
The Beauty Bus Foundation doesn't actually have a bus, and it currently provides in-home services and pop-up salons in the Los Angeles-area only. But putting beauty on the move is part of the foundation's vision. Levine says she hopes to begin Beauty Bus salons in hospitals across the country.
At a small gathering of potential Beauty Bus investors in Chapel Hill last spring, Paula Cook '95, a former classmate of Levine's, said the Beauty Bus mission resonated with her. About two years ago she battled an intestinal illness that shrunk her body weight to 100 pounds and caused her hair to start falling out. She didn't want to go out in public. One day she visited a hairstylist in an effort to feel better about her changing appearance.
"She made it look like there was more hair, and I wept," Cook said. "One of the feelings, when you're ill like that, is you're just left behind. And everyone is living their fun life and you're at home and sick and you don't look like yourself anymore...I'm so happy to be on the other side of that, and I know so well what that means to someone. It felt like I could be out in public and people could see me and not pity me."
Levine says those transformations -- from despair to dignity -- happen all the time through the work of the Beauty Bus Foundation, and those turning points make it worth taking the unexpected path she's followed in honor of her sister.
"I couldn’t not do it for my sister. It was really important to me that I found a way to honor her memory," Levine says. "I would rather have my sister, but it's been a true gift."