Arroyo Grande woman sends love and hair products to Sister Soldiers
by Julie Leyman, San Luis Obispo
Hundreds of women in the military — stationed in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan — have this holiday season opened boxes filled with shampoo, conditioner and love from Myraline Morris Whitaker and her army of supporters.
For nearly two years, the Arroyo Grande woman has been on a mission to send hair care items and feminine essentials to soldiers — primarily women of color — who have found it difficult to obtain the products needed to maintain their tresses.
So far, the Sister Soldier project, as it’s called, has shipped well over three tons of products to military bases around the world. And Whitaker said the number of soldiers on her list continues to grow.
“I just feel so excited when I imagine what these women will look like when they get these packages,’’ said Whitaker, a hospitality consultant who moved to the county first in the 1990s and again in 2005. “It’s so rewarding when you think about who you are packing for.”
“Over the course of the year, we touch thousands of women,’’ she added. “That, for me, is Christmas every day.”
While the military provides basic hair care items, they’re not necessarily suitable for thick, frizzy hair that is prone to breaking and not easily tied in a sleek ponytail or bun as the military requires, she said.
The idea came to life after a colleague of Whitaker’s recalled how she would have to leave the room whenever a fellow Marine, an African-American soldier, pressed her hair.
“Her experience went back 30 or 40 years, and I thought about the women today,’’ said Whitaker, who often finds it hard to buy products locally for her own hair. “I thought, ‘What are they doing in the Middle East to manage their hair based on the standards set by the military?’ I felt for the woman trying to do her hair without the right equipment.”
Inspired by a local man who was sending care packages to soldiers, Whitaker conducted a database search to find out what kinds of ethnic hair care products — deep conditioner, styling gels and relaxers — the soldiers were requesting. Her initial list consisted of roughly 20 to 30 women, and Whitaker assembled those first packages with unused items that she had around the house.
She then approached her book club in Los Angeles, and soon, a steady group of about 15 women were hosting regular packing parties or sending checks to cover the postage.
Whitaker’s year-round parties have become a national phenomenon, attracting the attention of people in San Luis Obispo County and beyond.
She recently helped women in Philadelphia and Alabama do their own parties, and has plans for more packing parties in Atlanta. This month, Soft Sheen, one of the companies that provide products for the care packages, hosted a packing party for the first time at its headquarters in New York.
Volunteers assembled 250 hair care packages in one hour. Each package also contained a letter.
But as enthusiastic as Whitaker is about the response that the Sister Soldier project has generated, what truly feeds her soul is the letters she receives from soldiers of all ethnic backgrounds, thanking volunteers for their generosity.
She’s amazed, she said, at the thoughtfulness and sheer courage of these women, many of whom have left behind spouses and children.
Some never thought they would serve in Iraq or Afghanistan, places where many people have never seen a black woman up close, Whitaker said.
“The Iraqis are floored,’’ she said. “They don’t see black women in power, and when these women are seen, they want to look like a leader and be respected as a leader.”
Whitaker acknowledges that embarking on such a project may seem odd given her opposition to war. But simply doing nothing for the women protecting our nation far from home is not an option, she said.
They have a sense of pride, and Whitaker believes it’s her duty to help these soldiers look presentable as they serve their country.
“It’s about caring for these women,’’ Whitaker added. “It doesn’t matter whether we’re at war or not.”