Cancer Support Organization Aims to Achieve What Others Can't

The founder of Wigs & Wishes explains how the organization evolved to provide wigs to women undergoing cancer treatment and fulfill wishes for children with the disease.
BY Beth Fand Incollingo
PUBLISHED November 06, 2019
Martino Cartier, the owner of a hair salon in Sewell, N.J, has dedicated the last 10 years of his life not only to his business, but to launching and expanding a charity that offers emotional support to people with cancer. Wigs & Wishes gives free wigs to women who’ve lost their hair due to cancer drugs and fulfills wishes for children with the disease. So far, it’s given away approximately 170,000 wigs and 100 wishes.

On Oct. 27, the salon owner who gained fame on Tabatha’s Salon Takeover took the stage with singer/dancer/choreographer Paula Abdul to host the organization’s ninth annual fundraising gala, attracting a crowd of more than 800 guests from across the globe.

During the event, the organization gifted two Disney trips, visits from superheroes, video and in-person greetings from TV stars, a wig and more to two children and a teenager with cancer. It also honored the memory of two youngsters who died of the disease, crowned a breast cancer survivor Queen of the Night and recognized a volunteer.

Cartier sat down with CURE® to talk about the history of Wigs & Wishes.

CURE®: What’s different about Wigs & Wishes?
Cartier: Tonight, we granted a wish for a girl who passed away almost a year ago (a soccer ball-shaped urn to hold her remains, something she had requested), but who else was going to do it? That’s what fuels my fire, that I’m trying to do things people can’t get done anywhere else.

When I first started the charity, I got so frustrated, because it’s hard to get people to help, it’s hard to get people to give and it’s hard to get people to donate, and I wanted to just give up. My mom said, “Why don’t you find a charity that does what you do and just join their mission and help make them stronger, because you have a lot to offer?” I said, “Mom, that’s a great idea,” and after forever and ever of searching, there was nothing like our charity.

Most charities for kids with cancer have policies of one wish per kid per lifetime, but all of our kids have had recurrences, so if they get a wish at 3 to go to Disney and now they’re 17 and they’re terminal, are we going to turn them down because they went when they were 3 and they don’t remember it? I could never turn a kid down. We granted multiple wishes tonight per kid, and that was to prove that we are not about one wish per kid per lifetime.

How did Paula Abdul get involved?
I’m very humbled tonight by all the support, especially from Paula Abdul. She was so tired and worked her butt off at her (Las Vegas stage show, yet still flew in and out of New Jersey in one evening to co-host). Paula has been involved for five years. I sell products on Home Shopping Network and QVC, and the chief marketing officer at the time was friends with her (and asked her to participate). She’s the only celebrity who’s never charged us to perform. I can’t imagine my life or our charity without her. 

What prompted you to start the organization?
The mother of one of my dear friends, Johnny, had cancer. They’re a very successful family; they’ve worked hard, and now they’re very wealthy and live in Houston. When I went to visit her, I saw that she had a wig on, and it was a noticeable wig. I said, “Johnny, with all the money your parents have, your mom couldn’t find a better wig?” And he said, “Bro, she paid five grand for it,” and that struck a nerve with me. I know what it’s like to struggle financially, and I thought, “What does the average woman do when she wants to look cancer-free or hide the fact that she’s going through cancer?” That’s why I started it.

I named the charity after his mother back then, but it grew kind of quickly and his mom didn’t want the exposure, so we changed it from her name to Friends Are By Your Side. Through the group, all my friends in the hair industry were allowing these women to look cancer-free for free.

How did the group evolve into Wigs & Wishes?
The name changed (and wishes became an integral part of our mission) after we met a girl named Kiki who wished to see Justin Bieber. The wish took seven months (to grant). No one would help us, and this kid was going to die. A guy on Facebook reached out and said, “I have two tickets Nov. 4 at Prudential Center, and I’ll sell them to you for $5,500.” The charity bought the tickets and I called Kiki and told her that Justin had given them to us.

The day came and we went in a pink limo. Kiki loved Carly Rae Jepsen, the “Call Me Maybe” singer, but we didn’t know that she would be opening for Justin Bieber — you can’t make this up. Kiki sat on my shoulders the entire night, screaming at the top of her lungs. She had the time of her life and forgot she had cancer for a moment. We met Justin and took pictures and then we drove home in this big pink limo.

When her mom came to pick her up, I mentioned that Kiki said her back hurt. That was on Sunday. On Monday, the mom called and said the pain was getting worse and they were going to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. On Tuesday, they said her lungs were filling with fluid. On Wednesday, they said hospice, and on Sunday, I was there and she passed away. That’s when Friends Are By Your Side became Wigs & Wishes, and it’s never changing, because that’s our mission.

Photo by DanCPhotography
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