A few weeks ago, a tiny San Francisco non-profit started a national goodwill juggernaut. The group, A Matter of Trust, put out a call for human hair and sheared animal fur for use in bio-degradable booms to soak up oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.
For a nation anxiously watching the environmental disaster, the invitation was irresistible. Hair salons and pet groomers began bagging their clippings. Volunteers packaged the stuff and mailed it to warehouses along the coast.
"It's such a simple thing to do and it makes you feel good," said Mike Gallagher. "It's hope. And everybody's looking for hope."
But over the past few days, Gallagher, a Rutgers law student, and his partner, John Carroll, a Broadway dancer, have suffered a kind of philanthropic whiplash.
One after another, conflicting reports have been arriving, raising doubts about whether the hair boom project is legitimate. Having spent countless hours and $1,400 in postage to mail 50 boxes containing hundreds of pounds of hair and fur, Gallagher and Carroll spent the weekend worrying, had it all been a waste?
A Matter of Trust insists that the booms will work and that the effort has not been in vain, with thousands of booms in storage waiting for deployment.
Last night, Ronald Rybarczyk, a BP spokesman, said he would not address claims by the group that the company had originally accepted its help, but then later rejected it. He said the only response the company would have is a press release from the Unified Command in Louisiana, which doesn't address the dispute.
"A tragic accident occurred and we don't want to lose sight of that...We want to respond as agressively as we can...to get this task handled and we're working very diligently to do that," he said.
Before volunteering, Gallagher and Carroll had researched A Matter of Trust's records in California, where it is a registered non-profit.
Gallagher started knocking on doors. On his block of South 11th Street in Center City, there are four hair salons and one groomer. "They all got on board," he said.
Across the country, eager volunteers joined the movement. Hanes donated pantyhose that were stuffed with hair and fur at community "Boom-BQ's." Nineteen warehouses along the Gulf coast donated storage space.
The success was dizzying. "We're just six people around a dining room table," said Lisa Gautier, the non-profit's 42-year-old president. Their goal had been modest. The booms would be useful for communities trying to protect their marshlands and shores. And wouldn't it be great if BP made use of them as well?
What followed was an object lesson in "Be careful what you wish for."
On May 15, a representative from the company's department of Critical Resources Materials Management (CRMM) called to say BP was interested, Gautier said.
But then, a few days later, BP said publicly that it was not working with A Matter of Trust. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is assisting with the spill containment and clean-up, issued a statement saying that the hair booms were not effective and that volunteers should stop donating the materials.
Word spread that the booms were a bust.
Gallagher didn't know whom to believe.
He didn't trust British Petroleum, and he doubted that Gautier had deliberately deceived volunteers.
Still, he and Carroll decided to stop going around to the city's salons. To continue donating would be irresponsible, he said.
"If it's just going to be warehoused somewhere, there are better ways to spend time and money."
Feeling that her organization's reputation has suffered unfairly, Gautier has fought back.
She and her husband, Patrice Olivier Gautier, an executive with Apple, founded the non-profit in 1999. In addition to the boom project, it organizes recycling and reuse projects, helps companies donate old furniture and produces environmental-education programs.
"Hair mats have been used for years and are approved by the EPA," Gautier said.
A Matter of Trust never claimed the booms floated, proposing instead that they be used to protect beaches, coves and marshes.
Some volunteers in the Philadelphia region who had been working with A Matter of Trust for months before the Deep Water Horizon blew up never lost faith.
"One of my clients told me about it last fall," said Kevin Gatto, 37, the owner of Verde Salon in Collingswood. Eager to recycle clippings that otherwise would go to a landfill, began regularly shipping the hair to the group. "Over the winter, they had warehouse issues and weren't taking donations for a couple of months," Gatto said. "But then, the gulf spill happened."
Seven Doggie Style salons are contributing, said Claudia Gutierrez, chief operating officer of the regional pet-store chain. "So far, we've probably collected two to three 50-gallon trash bags per store," Gutierrez said Friday. "We just think it's phenomenal."
A Matter of Trust reports that warehouses are overflowing and for now, no more hair and fur is needed from new volunteers.
The booms, Gautier said, "will be put to use. We know our boom is effective. We've told BP that it's very possible that yours absorbs faster, but if ours is at all comparable, we want to show this is a renewable, plentiful, free, non-toxic natural fiber and it's there, right on the Gulf, waiting to be used. Millions of hair cuts have gone into this and tons of goodwill. If you really don't want it, that's fine, but the parishes are beginning to ask what's going on?"
Gallagher said he's greatly relieved, but not surprised, to hear that A Matter of Trust is carrying on. "We're going to continue collecting and mailing," he said, "now that we know there will be some hopeful use for it."