When COVID-19 reared its ugly head and shut down or slowed down Missouri businesses, Bonne Terre resident Danielle Soncasie had already braved enough trials to know she had the strength to carry on.
The Chamber of Commerce ribbon cutting on June 24 for her salon, Salon Mia, was the culmination of months of business planning, weeks of patience through the shutdown, and decades of persistence.
Lots of persistence. And energy. The single mother of four has put herself through college and cosmetology school, written a book, lived in a variety of geographic locations and done it all on one leg having dealt with a congenital condition that affected her right leg.
“My right leg was substantially shorter than my left, I was born missing two toes, an ankle, growth plates, ligaments, bone density and muscle mass,” Soncasie said. “From the age of 9 months on, they attempted corrective surgeries. When I was 9, they lengthened my right leg seven inches, which was a horrid experience. I lived in that hospital the entire two years it took to complete the process.”
At 14, Soncasie was given the decision of having surgeries for the rest of her life, or amputating her foot. She chose amputation. She spent more than two decades soldiering through, but her back pain and neuropathy steadily got worse. At 36, she was told her amputation was too low and was destroying her spine.
“I was not able to get the prosthetics I needed because the amputation was just too low. So, they took another six inches off, thus totally negating once and for all the lengthening procedure I had when I was 9,” she said.
In the meantime, she’d met other challenges in her life head on. Originally from Ferguson, she grew up moving around, spending a large portion of her childhood in North St. Louis County and South St. Louis. When she was 12, her family moved to Farmington where she finished high school. She moved to Hawaii for five years, then Texas, returning to St. Francois County at the end of 2007.
In her travels, she wrote a novel in 2004, “Vampire Slayer: One Foot in Darkness,” published by Publish America in 2006.
“I was a baby, 24 years old when I finished writing it,” Soncasie said. “Superficially, it is about this set of twins that lost their family to a vampire attack. They realize that they have the ability to hunt and slay vampires.”
The twins make it their mission to protect and enact change in their small Midwestern town so that no one must face their grim experiences.
“In reality though, the book is actually about my amputation and what it was like growing up in Farmington, dealing with that as a young woman,” she said. “I was 14. I had just started high school. That is a very delicate time to cut off body parts and change who you were going to be ... totally.”
Soncasie (pronounced “Sahn-cha-see”) jokes that she’s had 275 jobs in her lifetime. She attended Mineral Area College classes, took University of Phoenix classes online—“I had four children at that point, going to a physical school at the time seemed impossible”— and studied mass communication and marketing, but nothing stuck. And then she signed up for National Beauty Academy in Farmington. On a dare.
Her sister-in-law at the time had begun taking classes and was trying to talk Soncasie into joining her, but other family members were razzing the idea, saying she wasn’t “girly enough.” Soncasie took it as a personal challenge to sign up, although she had some preconceived notions “that cosmetology was something you did when you couldn’t get a ‘real’ career,” she said. “Boy was I never so happy to be proven wrong … I discovered the science behind cutting, coloring and the biology of human hair, what causes damage and poor health of hair and how to mitigate and prevent it.
“I realized I loved it, and I was pretty good at it actually. Out of all the careers I’ve had, this has been the one that stuck.”
While she enjoyed the experience of learning the latest trends in making people look and feel beautiful, her leg – and some unenlightened employers — made it difficult to stand over her clients for long lengths of time.
“There is no ankle that moves autonomously, or toes to move a certain way to stand a specific way. So, there is a lot of back trouble that comes with it,” she said. “Every step is a certain level of pain. Sometimes it's friction, sometimes it's the pressure. But it is there. I get some pretty gnarly pressure wounds from being on my feet constantly. I try to mitigate that by using a saddle stool, a hair-cutting stool, but you can't use it for everything.”
Some salons didn’t want her using the stool period, Soncasie said.
“I cannot tell you how many salons turned me away because they claimed my saddle stool was a danger to other people,” she said. “Or that it was an eyesore. Or they just didn't feel comfortable with having me work there. Not to mention the salons that refused to uphold my reasonable accommodation afforded to me by the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is heartbreaking. I want to see this change.”
Soncasie said she believes too many disabled St. Francois County residents and their employers don't understand the rights of the disabled as ensured by Section 504 and the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“Citizens with disabilities have just as much to contribute to our society as able-bodied citizens. Let me tell you something, no one can solve a problem like a woman who can't reach her leg, but needs to go to the restroom,” Soncasie said.
Often, in an ironic twist, people with disabilities can also take heat for adapting “too well” to everyday life.
“I’ve had people in the past tell me that, ‘Oh, you aren't disabled. You walk just fine! You get around just fine!’ Like, being disabled is something to feel shame for,” she said. “Or that, I am only saying I am disabled so I can get some kind of special treatment. If I could trade all of this discomfort, pain, and daily struggle just to get my leg on fast enough to go to the bathroom, I would.
“There is an idea people have of physically disabled people. And, I do what I can every day to alter that perception. Physically-disabled does not necessarily mean mentally-disabled. We aren't angry. We aren't entitled. We are uncomfortable and we just want to park close to the building and use the big stall so our wheelchairs can fit.”
To that end, Soncasie has signed on to become a patient ambassador for Shriners Hospital, a sort of public relations and awareness program that lets former patients donate their time and allows them to share their story to promote understanding and compassion.
And, of course, there’s the salon she’s been working on since before COVID-19 became a thing.
“I can WORK for myself and not have some manager tell me that I can't sit down, that I can't use my saddle stool,” she said. “One time, my prosthetic foot broke completely off of the socket at work, and my manager told an assistant manager to go to the store, get some Ace wrap bandage and Ace wrap my foot back onto the socket and send me back out to cut hair. Can you believe that?
“But, now I don't have to deal with that anymore. I won't have my rights violated, and I can work at whatever pace I feel comfortable with. It's an amazing feeling.”
Still, while preparing to launch Salon Mia, she noticed her left leg began to rebel from carrying her all her life.
“My left knee couldn't take the pressure anymore, and it gave out. It has been carrying me my whole life. Through track in high school, chasing after four kids, cutting hair for 10 years. It gave up,” she said. “So, the very next day after I got the keys to Salon Mia, I had a knee transplant on my left side. We really thought that was the only hurdle we would have in opening, me painting walls in a wheelchair … But then, the apocalypse hit, aka COVID19, and we started to panic.”
The previous plan was to open by mid-March—when schools were just beginning to lead the general shutdown that swept across the nation. Soncasie was devastated.
“I had sold my only car to open this shop, what was I going to do? Everything I had was in it! If it went under before I got a chance to begin, I would lose everything,” she said. She credits her partner for putting things into perspective.
“My partner … helped me see that this just gave us a little more time, and that people would really need haircuts by the time we could open,” Soncasie said. “So, I took the money from my car and my stimulus check and I put it all into the salon. As soon as the stay-at-home order lifted on May 4, we opened.”
Juggling the time and resources could be the product of having raised four kids who range in age from 20 to 12. Her youngest, Amelia, is the namesake for the salon.
“I’ve called her Mia since before she was born. The signature color in the salon is her eye color. There is a 'Selfie Center' Wall in the shop with her name in big white letters, and under that are all her filtered selfies! It is my love letter to her,” Soncasie said. “My way of very not so subtly showing her that everything I do is for her.
"She is smart, kind, generous, soft hearted, well mannered, loving, and eager to help ... I could go on for hours. She is my joy. And I've had a pretty great team with raising her. I couldn't have asked for better co-parents.”
Now that the salon at 15 W. School St. in Bonne Terre is open — Tuesday through Friday 9 a.m.-6 p.m., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturday — she’s still marveling at the result of years of patience and decades of persistence.
“Everything in this salon has been with our own two hands. If it didn't come from home, we made it ourselves. We painted, built, put together, everything you see in Salon Mia,” Soncasie said. “It's an amazing feeling to look at how beautiful it all turned out, knowing that we did it totally by ourselves.”
Sarah Haas is the assistant editor for the Daily Journal. She can be reached at 573-518-3617 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.