Modern Original People: Wendy Marantz Levine

Melissa Nealy was just 28 in 2005 when she lost her battle with a degenerative neuromuscular disease. “She got sick in December, 2004, and we lost her exactly a year later,” says her sister, Wendy Marantz Levine, who remembers Melissa, as a “fiery redhead” and someone who loved to travel. “She got engaged to her college sweetheart right before she was diagnosed, and they decided to go through with the wedding anyway. Theirs was a true romance, a total love story.” A girly girl who loved a good spa day, Melissa eventually became too sick to leave the house and enjoy having her hair or nails done so her family arranged for her to have those services at home. “It was frustrating that everything became about her quality of care and not her quality of life,” says Wendy, who admits that arranging for these at-home visits wasn’t as easy as it sounds. “For one thing, it was really expensive,” she says. “You have to pay for someone’s travel time as well as their fee, but it was also difficult to find people willing to take care of a young person who was really sick.”

Still, those moments meant so much to Melissa that it got Wendy wondering if there was an organization out there that provided the kinds of services that had brought such joy to her sister. When she couldn’t find one, she had the “crazy idea to start one” herself. After enlisting the help of her cousin, Alicia Marantz Liotta, she co-founded the Beauty Bus Foundation in 2009.

“We saw 11 clients that year,” says Wendy, who reached out to social workers she knew at the ALS Association—“They really helped my sister,” she explains—and asked them to vouch for her fledging non-profit. “They were incredible about introducing us to their clients.” Once she’d partnered with the ALS Association, Wendy was able to approach other organizations, including City of Hope, Ronald McDonald House and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, which quickly came on board.

“Once we started, it just took off very quickly. The need for what we do was astounding, and the response from the beauty industry, which donated products and time, was overwhelming.”

To date, Beauty Bus has seen more than 12,000 clients. Last year alone they provided 2,089 services free of charge, including hair care, makeup, manicures/pedicures and facials. Their annual fundraiser—“We need to raise $400,000 a year to operate,” says Wendy—is not your typical rubber chicken dinner. Instead, volunteers are on hand to provide beauty and grooming services for attendees and about three dozen clients, who experience a day out that also includes food and drinks plus a silent auction with items ranging from beauty products to theatre tickets. “We also give a Lifetime Achievement Award to someone in the beauty industry,” says Wendy. Ann Mincey was the first honoree. This year they added a Spirit of Life Award to honor someone outside the industry and help raise additional funds.

This spring, Steve and Ceyonne LeDesma attended the event to talk about how much having someone pamper her meant to their daughter Bella, who was diagnosed with cancer when she was 18 months old and passed away earlier this year when she was just 14.

“We saw her at the hospital right before they sent her home from hospice. Bella had a manicure, her mother had her hair cut and her grandmother had a facial,” says Wendy, who also provides services for caregivers. “These services do so much to bring dignity and joy into people’s lives. Our clients tell us that we make them feel human again.”

Levine, who had been Director of Litigation at one of LA’s largest legal service organizations, admits that lawyers “aren’t exactly known for being the most charitable group.” Beauty professionals, on the other hand, choose their profession precisely because it allows them to “touch people, to transform them, to make a difference.” It was that “aha” moment, which Levine experienced after observing how those at-home beauty treatments transformed her own sister, that prompted her to give up law to pursue a career helping others. So why did her idea take flight when it might have crashed and burned? Her firm had provided services to the elderly, the poor and the disabled, and it is that experience coupled with her desire to transform her family’s loss into something positive, that holds the key to her success. And so it goes when a uniquely qualified person comes up with a Modern Original idea, great things can happen.

To learn more about the Beauty Bus Foundation, please visit: http://www.beautybus.org/. We encourage every person who reads this story to make a donation. Your contribution will mean a lot to them and us.