Alison O'Neil's triumph over childhood obesity and a debilitating skin disease led her to pioneer work in a new field--caring for seniors through cosmetic health and well-being services.
- Posted on Nov 10, 2015
Alison O’Neil has always had a heart for seniors.
The geriatric aesthetics and senior care expert who grew up befriending seniors in the retirement neighborhood where she lived in Florida, founded the non-profit Beauty Becomes You Foundation in 2006, which offers cosmetic health and well-being services to boost self-confidence and dignity in seniors. She was among the first in the country to explore the connection between appearance and well-being in seniors, but she had to overcome many challenges to develop her expertise.
Because she was chided as a child for being overweight, O'Neil sought to understand the psychology of appearance and how it impacts identity and self-esteem. However, in 1978, there were no college programs where she could explore those issues. A disheartened O’Neil ended up going to 3 different colleges and pursuing different majors until she met a make-up artist who worked with burn survivors at a plastic surgeon’s office.
She tells Guideposts.org: “When I was watching this woman show pictures of her clients and the work she was able to do to give them pride in their appearance again, I heard this voice from God saying, ‘This is what you’re here to do.’” Her passion to help people find confidence and strength in their appearance through adversity was reignited.
She would need that passion. When she brought up the idea to expand the study of cosmetology to work with those with disfigurements as a way to boost esteem, professors, doctors and others in the medical field discouraged her and told her she should just go back to school, get a degree and “get married,” because her idea would “never be a field of medicine.”
Meanwhile, O’Neil suffered her own medical problems. While in cosmetology school she developed an allergy to the products which later grew into atopic dermatitis all over her body. “It was a very painful period in my life,” she says. “I was hospitalized for my skin condition. It was like fire ants crawling on me all the time. They told me I would have to live in a bubble because I was allergic to the environment.”
Feeling like a failure at 21 years old and living in a painful body soon became too much for O’Neil. “I woke up on a Monday morning in Atlanta and thought, ‘I’m going to go jump off a bridge.’” But she felt God leading her to call the dermatologist at Emory University to help her with her skin condition. The receptionist, however, said that the dermatologist did not have any availabilities that day.
“My skin was screaming, it was so painful. I told the receptionist, 'If I don’t see someone today, I won’t be around to see anyone tomorrow.” The receptionist fit her in and the dermatologist was astounded by the extreme condition of her skin. “He said to me, ‘How are you living in that body?’ He gave me prednisone and other tools to help decrease the inflammation.”
When the dermatologist eventually learned of O’Neil’s vision to study the psychology of appearance, he was so intrigued that he asked O’Neil to work for him at Emory.
Soon, he asked her to prepare a proposal to start a clinic specializing in what would become the field, dermatologic rehabilitation. When she presented her proposal to clinic physicians on a Wednesday afternoon, one by one, the physicians said, "Yes." Two days before, she had received her first allergy shot. By Thursday, her skin had completely and healed. O’Neil believed the power of their “yes” allowed her skin to stop screaming. She was finally heard.
At the Emory Clinic, O’Neil honed her skills working with patients who had cancer, had lost parts of their face and body or suffered with other disfiguring conditions. She started a counseling rehabilitation specialty in the psychology of appearance and cosmetics. In 1984, she was invited to help develop a program for cancer patients, which was launched in 1987 as the American Cancer Society’s Look Good, Feel Better program, where they served about 5 million people. She soon became the youngest person appointed to the Board of Cosmetology in Georgia and served on the Board for 11 years.
In 1999, with her skin healed and her career booming, everything was going well for O’Neil, until she learned of the unexpected illness of her father. O’Neil took time off to help her mother take care of her father, who was in hospice at home for 9 months.
Her father’s cancer had progressed to a degree where it had metastasized to his bones and brain leaving him unable to form conversations. On one warm summer day while sitting on the porch together, he suddenly spoke words directly from God, he said "Alison, Beauty Becomes You."
“I felt like it was his way of telling me that my work, my passion, being able to help these people was what made me beautiful. God spoke to me through that.”
Six weeks later, her father passed away. When O’Neil went back to work, her father’s words rung in her memory. That's when she founded her non-profit Beauty Becomes You Foundation (BBYF), focused on geriatric wellness and aesthetics, with the goal of “changing the way society looks at seniors.”
Building upon her skills she garnered working with burn victims and cancer patients, O'Neil's BBYF programs provide massage therapy, skin hair and nail care for seniors, as well as salon and spa days donated by partner organizations. These services provide loving physical touch to the most neglected members of society, as well as self-esteem boosting and stress-relieving care.
“All the work is being done by volunteers and we’ve provided over 15,000 services to our seniors,” O’Neil says.
O’Neil’s work with BBYF is making national news as she’s been awarded $10,000 for BBYF as one of make-up company L’Oreal Paris’s Women of Worth Award honorees. “It was one of the most incredible moments of my life,” she tells Guideposts.org.
She’s now in the running to win $25,000 more for BBYF as the public votes online through November 20 for one honoree to be the national award winner.
For every setback and triumph, O’Neil counts it all joy.
“It has taken my whole life to reach this point,” she says. Though success didn’t come right when she wanted it to, “Now is the time,” that God willed it.