Beauty in the face of illness

The Lipstick Project seeks local volunteers

Those involved with The Lipstick Project, a local volunteer-driven charity providing free, professional spa services to terminally ill patients of all ages, aim to give those they serve one good day.

"We know that we're not saving lives or anything like that. Our aim is to bring a little bit of light and love and comfort to someone who is facing significant health challenges in what can be a scary part of their life," says founder and executive director Leigh Boyle.

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The Vancouver-based 27-year-old, who grew up in Lynn Valley, established The Lipstick Project in 2012, though its roots go back to 2011. From 2010 to 2011, Boyle worked full time as a communications officer for Imagine1day, an international nonprofit agency focused on education, in Mekelle, in northern Ethiopia.

Interested in volunteering in the community on her days off, Boyle connected with an area women's hospital. While her help was warmly welcomed, she was unsure what she had to contribute to the women's happiness, considering she didn't speak their language and came from a different cultural background. Her girlfriends suggested she offer the patients manicures.

"I'm not skilled in that way, but I thought, yeah sure, that could be a cool way to connect with people, and just sort of take care of each other and be compassionate towards each other and it really worked well," says Boyle, who also serves as a development officer for Vancouver's Union Gospel Mission in the Downtown Eastside.

She was further inspired to launch the organization as right before she moved home in 2011, a family friend had passed away at the North Shore Hospice. One of the woman's last requests had been to have her hair and nails done.

"It was a hard request to fulfill," says Boyle. "Word sort of got back to me and my girlfriends about that and we thought that between us we had the resources and tools and skills to be able to address that and make sure that if someone was in a similar situation that we would be able to provide those services to them."

For the name of her organization, Boyle turned to a story she recalled reading while in university, about an excerpt from the diary of Lt.-Col. Mervin Willett Gonin. According to the project website, he had been one of the first British soldiers to liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. He wrote about the horrific conditions of those held captive and their sheer lack of basic necessities. He also noted the transformative effects of the arrival of a large crate of lipstick, bringing the people back to life by reinstilling their sense of individuality.

Boyle had started using The Lipstick Project as a form of shorthand when referring to her volunteerism in Ethiopia in correspondence with friends and family back home. "I wanted to call it something and as I was thinking about the women and the particular reasons why they were in the hospital and the different issues that they were facing.. .. I thought that The Lipstick Project was a good name for it in terms of the connection to the story because the story is really all about that something as small as a tube of lipstick can be the starting point to give someone their humanity and their dignity back," she says.

The Lipstick Project is currently partnered with and serves patients identified by staff through the North Shore Hospice Society, Canuck Place Children's Hospice, Vancouver Hospice Society, B.C. Children's Hospital and Ronald McDonald Family House of B.C. "It seemed like there was a lot of space for something like this in the health care system. As we got started we had a lot of people say, 'Oh, this is great, we've been waiting for an organization like you guys to come around because we all know that it's something that would really contribute to the well-being of our patients or residents or clients.' And yet it was something that was slipping off the radar for people," says Boyle.

Services offered include: hair cuts, updos, washes and trims; manicures and pedicures; makeup applications; and different types of massages.

Approximately 100 people volunteer with the program annually, however more are needed, specifically to serve patients at the North Shore Hospice, due to significant increase in demand over the past year.

They're looking for beauty professionals, including hair stylists, estheticians and massage therapists, though interested community members not skilled in those areas are also welcome to come on board and help with more administrative duties.

Sessions are typically held Monday afternoons, once or twice a month, for approximately three hours.

"There's no worries if you're not familiar with hospice care or necessarily what we're all about. What we're looking for are people who have a heart for contributing to the community and who are willing to learn," says Boyle, explaining they provide a comprehensive training program for volunteers and offer support every step of the way. "It's a very supportive team-based program," she says.

North Vancouver resident Victoria Steele, 27, has been volunteering with The Lipstick Project since 2013. She serves as a team leader at the North Shore Hospice, overseeing volunteers and ensuring things run smoothly for all involved during sessions.

She was motivated to get involved with the organization in the wake of her father Tom's passing at the North Shore Hospice in December 2012 at age 64 after a decade of battling various forms of lymphoma. During her father's time there, it became abundantly clear that, in the last days of someone's life, it's the little things that are truly important and bring comfort and peace, she says.

Steele is pleased to be able to return to the hospice and give back to other patients and families facing similar challenges.

"It was something that I really wanted to be a part of because it meant a lot to my family when there were people at the hospice helping us," she says.

"It was a comforting feeling knowing that people were there for you," she adds.

Steele's involvement in The Lipstick Project has aided her in her own grieving process by encouraging her to step back into the hospice.

"For quite some time I really avoided going there because it was just too hard for me. Over time for me going to the hospice and being able to volunteer and being able to speak with people about my personal experiences was what really helped me move past my own issues that I was dealing with. It was a very positive thing for me as hard as it was," she says.

The Lipstick Project is Vancouver-based at present, but those involved hope to see it eventually expand across Canada with different chapters opening across the country.

For more information on The Lipstick Project, visit

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