While Alanna Walls was still in elementary school, she tried to volunteer at a hospital. They told her she was too young. She tried other places, too, but got the same response. So two years ago, at the age of 10, Alanna started her own nonprofit.
As founder of Polished Girlz, Alanna, now 12, goes into hospitals, homes and even hospice’s to polish the nails of ill or disabled children. Word spread quickly of the young girl who easily speaks to children in fragile health. Soon, over a hundred volunteers had joined Polished Girlz and the phone rang steadily with requests for appointments. Earlier this month, Alanna appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and now she has requests from girls around the world to become Polished Girlz volunteers. Ellen presented the young philanthropist with a $10,000 check from Cover Girl to help her purchase more supplies.
Alanna, who lives in Dayton, Ohio, remembers her first polish session with the Down Syndrome Association of Dayton.
“Everyone was so excited,” she recalls. “I remember one girl named Olivia. She didn’t talk the first time I met her. I asked her, ‘What color?’ She didn’t say anything. I said, ‘All girls look good in pink.’ She smiled. I did pink. I said, ‘You want glitter?’ She didn’t answer. I said, ‘All girls look good in glitter.’ She smiled. When I finished, she skipped away.
“The next time, she was first,” said Alanna. “She said, ‘I want pink, purple, yellow, green and I want glitter.’ It was like she just needed to get to know us. It made me feel happy when we came back and she talked. I thought it was cool.”
Louann Lee was at that meeting with her daughter Megan, a 10-year-old girl with Down Syndrome. Megan has her nails done regularly since Alanna comes to the group’s monthly support meetings.
“It makes them feel special,” Lee said of the children—including boys—who get their nails done at each meeting. “Megan is getting ready to be a teenager and she loves going to school the next day and showing her nails to her friends,” said Lee, who describes Alanna as “a sweet, sweet girl” who “always takes time to say ‘hi’ to Megan and the other kids.”
Alanna thinks maybe she got her compassion from her mother, Valerie Ragland, who is a nurse.
“When I was eight, I wanted to make scarves for girls with cancer because my mom’s coworker got cancer,” said Alanna. “I love animals but I was too young to volunteer for the Humane Society. When I was 10, I was getting a whole lot of nail polish from my Nana and I would do my nails all the time. Then I thought about doing other people’s nails.”
“She said she wanted to polish the nails of every girl with cancer, every girl who was sick,” said Ragland. “I said okay, we can go as far as we can. Every girl you serve is a blessing. Everywhere we went they would ask her to come back forever.”
Ragland realized the difference Alanna was making when the director of a program for adults with different disabilities asked her to come back every week because parents were dressing their children to match their nails.
“When she got into the hospitals, that’s when we knew this was bigger than life,” Ragland said. “We had parents whose kids were doing chemotherapy, crying because they couldn’t believe someone so young was spending time with their kids.”
Meanwhile Ragland helped her daughter add to her mission to educate children about the importance of washing their hands to reduce infection.
“We do their nails and they wouldn’t want them to be dirty since they are super cool,” said Alanna. “If they wash their hands, they won’t get sick. They will get out the hospital quicker.”
Today, there are chapters of Polished Girlz around the country, including in Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore and New York City. To start a chapter, volunteers must have an adult Team Lead. The new volunteers receive a kit from Polished Girlz that includes a Caboodles carrying case, hand sanitizer, a booklet on hand washing, nail polish remover, stickers, glitters and nail polish.
Alanna is happy to finally be able to give. Her mother is often awed by her daughter’s composure and compassion.
“We visited a girl in the hospital. The surgeon had been trying to get her to sit up for three days but, when they (the volunteers) came in with polish, she sat up because she wanted to see the colors,” said Ragland. “The mom pulled me outside, crying.”
Sometimes Alanna gets special requests for private polishing sessions, something Polished Girlz doesn’t require other volunteers do. Ragland recalls a little girl named Anna who, at 10, was suffering with congestive heart failure. Ragland explained the situation to Alanna and let her make the decision to go. Alanna insisted.
As it turns out, they polished Anna and her sister.
“Anna came down with oxygen on and didn’t feel well. Alanna took an hour drawing designing, polishing and putting on stickers,” said Ragland, who polished the sister and also held their mother while she cried in the kitchen.
“She couldn’t believe the time Alanna took with her daughter,” said Ragland. “When she got finished with Anna, she left her with one of the bracelets she had made. Her sister said she wanted one too. She wanted one just like Anna. We made the bracelet that weekend and left it in the mailbox that Monday. Her mother emailed us less than a week later and said, ‘I want you to know shortly after you left, Anna went into the hospital and she passed with her bracelet on and her nails done.’”
“But it really is amazing (Alanna) doesn’t have that fear of working with these children,” said Ragland. “She seems to have a sense of peace knowing that they are okay and not suffering.”
To start Polished Girlz, Ragland used money from her salary as a nurse. Alanna’s father, a real estate developer, also works for Polished Girlz along with two other volunteers who handle customer service. Business is growing so fast that Ragland said, laughing, “Alanna is going to have to start paying people.”
Polished Girlz also has a board of directors and Alanna’s parents make sure she attends meetings and participates in running the organization. Volunteers pay a $55 registration fee and receive a pink Caboodles carrying case, a Polished Girlz T-shirt, nail polish and other supplies.
Right now, Alanna and her volunteers regularly polish the nails of close to 1,000 kids. But after Alanna’s latest TV appearance the group picked up 100 new volunteers to add to the 125 it had after and Ragland said, “I don’t know how many kids we will end up doing this year.”
The pre-teen shows up at walks for autism, visits several Ronald McDonald’s Houses around the country, paints nails for the Sickle Cell Foundation and a growing number of other clients. When she’s not volunteering, Alanna, who attends a performing arts school, is learning the latest nail polish technique, diving, playing the violin or hanging out with friends or her younger brother Jeffrey, a karate master. She has also started designing jewelry and a custom line of Polished Girlz nail polish.
“I want Polished Girlz to be worldwide,” said Alanna. “If you are in the hospital, you should still get polished. I think every girl should be able to get polished.”