When Skylar Lewis was 3, her hair started to fall out in clumps. It began with a small bald spot on the back of her head, and by the time she was in fourth grade, she was completely bald. She was diagnosed with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that results in the loss of hair on the scalp and the rest of the body. That’s when she asked her parents if she could get a hairpiece, and they turned to Locks of Love.

“It did change the way people reacted to me,” Skylar says, “You know how kids can be. I kind of got ridiculed because I was different. But it wasn’t all bad. Some people were curious about what was happening to me and asked me about it. I realized I could make it a good thing or a bad thing. I try to make it a good thing by talking about it.”

Alopecia areata affects nearly 2 percent of the U.S. population, or about 4 million people, and has stricken famous people such as film star Humphrey Bogart, American industrialist and philanthropist John Davison Rockefeller Sr., and actress and motivational speaker Margaret H. Baker. Now the search for a cure to the disease has gotten a $350,000 boost in the form of a gift from Locks of Love to the Department of Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. The gift will support research and an annual symposium on the disease.

“This very significant gift from Locks of Love will allow us to advance basic science research, clinical care, and physician and public education about the devastating effects alopecia areata has on millions of sufferers, especially children,” says Lawrence Schachner, M.D., professor and chairman of the Department of Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery at the Miller School. “We are honored this wonderful organization has chosen our medical school and department to be the recipient of this gift.”

Alopecia areata affects both sexes and people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. It often begins in childhood. The first symptoms of alopecia areata are usually one or more small, round, smooth bald patches on the scalp, but the symptoms can progress to total scalp hair loss (alopecia totalis) or complete body hair loss (alopecia universalis).

Locks of Love is a Palm Beach County-based charity that provides custom-fitted hairpieces to children living with long-term or permanent medical hair loss. In less than ten years, Locks of Love has provided 2,000 hairpieces to children in all 50 states and in Canada.

“We are excited to enter into a new phase of our mission to help children living with alopecia by providing them with hope for a successful treatment,” says Madonna Coffman, president of Locks of Love. “Because of my direct association with Dr. Schachner over the past nine years, the University of Miami was the obvious choice for this gift. We are hopeful the research will bring us closer to one day finding a cure for this life-altering disease.”