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EVERYDAY PEOPLE: Changing lives

Hairstylist Holly Eisenbraun brushed the hair on a wig in Ruth’s Free Wig Closet

AITKIN — Holly Eisenbraun is doing a job she swore she’d never do. And she loves it. 

Holly Eisenbraun is a cosmetologist at her mother’s salon, Jeanie’s Hair Design in downtown Aitkin. Holly said she spent most of her formative years at her mom’s salon and fought the idea of ever entering the same industry. Then one day things clicked. “I just knew this is what I wanted to do,” she said. 

For Holly and her co-workers, the salon is more than just beauty, it’s about changing lives.  

In the back corner of Jeanie’s Hair Design is a closet full of wigs and hats and head coverings. 

“It’s like our own little mission in our small town,” Holly said.

Ruth’s Free Wig Closet was started nearly two decades ago by Jeanie Thompson and her identical twin sister, Janie Martz, after their mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Holly said when her grandmother, Ruth, was undergoing treatment for her cancer the availability of wigs was so limited it made it hard to find something on short notice for a reasonable price. “They had them, but they were from medical supply companies and super expensive,” Holly said. 

Over the last 16 years, Ruth’s Free Wig Closet has grown from a side project to a bonafide non-profit that provides a little bit of hope to each woman who walks out with a new wig. 

“Most of them don’t believe they can take it (for free),” said Holly who serves as the president for the non-profit.

Ruth’s Free Wig Closet operates on donations and grant funding. The idea is for women regardless of the socioeconomic status to have access to high quality head coverings at no cost to them. 

Ruth’s is unique in that it accepts used wigs, which they are able to do because they give them away.

Holly is quick to point out that Ruth’s Free Wig Closet is not full of short curly wigs, like many fear they might find. They are stylish, and can be trimmed to whatever length its wearer desires. 

Women who use the wig closet can come back as many times as they wish. 

Holly said it can be hard for people, who have never lost their hair due to cancer treatment, to understand the need for free wigs for women. “They say, ‘It’s just hair,’” she said. “It’s not though. Our hair is part of who we are. 

“It’s part of our personality.”

Holly said clients come from all over central Minnesota and Ruth’s Free Wig Closet sends an average of 20 packages a month to women around the country diagnosed with cancer and in need of wigs and head coverings.  

How do cancer patients around the country learn about a hair salon’s non-profit in Aitkin, Minn.? 

People Magazine, of course.

Holly submitted her mom and aunt, Janie, to People Magazine’s “Heroes Among Us” and the pair was featured in September 2010.  Holly said the hope was to inspire other salons to start projects similar to Ruth’s Free Wig Closet.  Holly said the idea kind of backfired, but in a good way. “We were overwhelmed with response from all over the country,” Holly said.

But Holly, along with her mom, Jeanie, say the more people that know about it the better. 

Jeanie said part of the problem many women facing cancer treatment deal with a lack of resources for basic things like wigs and knowing where they can find one locally. “It’s not the money— it’s not economic,” she said. “It’s geographical. Where do you get a wig on short notice?”

Holly said Ruth’s Free Wig Closet is not just something that’s important to her family, it’s also a huge part of her mom’s business.  “Every second we spend here is volunteer time,” she said. “It comes partially with the job.”

Holly said even with her early life plans to travel the world, she feels like she made the right decision in pursuing the career she swore she’d never do.  “I love doing this,” she said. “To see the smiles when those ladies leave — they’re so happy. It’s really exciting for us to watch.”

Holly’s grandma, Ruth, died six months after her diagnosis, but her legacy lives on in her daughters and granddaughter’s mission to make the nightmare of cancer a littler easier for those who are diagnosed. “We do this for her,” Holly said. “This would be something she would be proud of.”

SARAH NELSON KATZENBERGER may be reached at or 855-5879.