The Benefits of Giving Back
Giving back and engaging your community can seem like the last thing on your list of things to do at the moment, but in so doing, you open yourself up to rewards that are beneficial to your well being and beneficial to your business. The impact is immeasurable. And although you don’t begin with your benefit being the primary focus, benefits will show up in your life and your salon work.
While we may feel the impulse to shrink in the face of adversity, it may very well be the time to make an offering or to serve instead, even when we may feel there is little to give. This stretching of our capacity becomes an exercise of filling our lives with beauty, love, and joy that we cannot know any other way.
Your capacity is limitless. The question is, are you ready to grow?
When I began down the path of establishing the non-profit Haircuts with Heart, it was born out of a conversation with a client sitting in my chair, and talking about the increasing number of homeless people on the street. I asked myself what could I give? It didn’t take long to realize that what I could give was a haircut.
Do you ever look around and get overwhelmed when you pass people experiencing homelessness? Do you feel uncomfortable, unsafe, angry, hopeless, or helpless, and ultimately unable to do anything about it?
I’ve had all these feelings. But, one day, mere empathy was not enough. I had to explore my feelings and questions. The Dalai Lama wrote, “The cultivation of compassion is no longer a luxury, but a necessity if our species is to survive.” I recognized this as a call to action and the missing piece for me.
The process of cultivating compassion for our community requires an engagement with it. It is a journey; a journey worth embarking on. What it uncovers is the truth about us: our gifts, our nature, our ability to heal the darkest aspects of our humanity by illuminating them with light and hope.
Cultivating compassion in a community is not an overnight process, it has to begin with us—with just one thing that you can uniquely contribute. In hindsight, I see how different life experiences led me here.
In response to wanting to quit beauty school, my instructor suggested I stay with it, that I’d be good at it. Until about halfway through my 30-plus-year career, I thought there must be something more important for me to do than cut hair. Yet I finally settled into my career.
In fact, I completely threw myself into it. Deciding to become the best I could be by educating myself, styling hair for magazines and at New York City Fashion Week, and teaching stylists nationwide to become the best they could be. I was at the pinnacle of my career.
Or so I thought.
Beneath the outward success, something still bothered me. In working with this discomfort, I was slowly waking to the truth that I would not last in my industry if I didn’t change how I was working. I knew there was a whole lot more to cutting hair than the haircut. But what? I needed to rediscover my own voice and feel my heart again.
So, with the support of clients, I opened my own studio to begin working on my own. Soon I became keenly aware of the increasing number of homeless people in my community. I didn’t have money, but pondered what could I give?
Giving takes just one thing. One thing I knew I could give was haircuts. Free haircuts would be my act of compassion. After a conversation with a client, Haircuts with Heart was born. I called community organizations that serve the underserved and asked if they would be interested in my services. The answer was a resounding YES!
As a hairstylist, facing my guests in the mirror and touching their heads is a powerful, personal and intimate experience. The opportunity is ripe to open to relaxation and trust. I’ve learned everybody has a story to tell, and in the telling, the teller and listener bond, and an inner beauty shines forth for all to see.
At one of our events in Oakland, one sun-parched, nearly toothless woman from the encampment across the street sat in my chair, giving the clear direction of how she wanted her hair. While I cut, I asked how long she had been living across the street. Though I couldn’t understand her words completely, it was clear that she had been living beneath the freeway for a long time, long before the encampment, and something terrible happened there. Eyes squeezed tight, she silently began to cry dry tears. I stopped cutting, rested my hand on her shoulder, and simply touched and listened as she allowed me to bear witness to her emotion. “You are truly a brave woman,” I told her again and again. As she quieted and opened her eyes, I resumed cutting.
The Honor of Giving
Sharing such gifts with the most exposed people living on our streets is an honor. As this work attracts other stylists who want to give, natural mentoring occurs. Through quiet action and decency, we show the next generation of professionals how they too can care for their community. As Raja Krishnamourti said, “When the norm is decency, other virtues can thrive: integrity, honesty, compassion, kindness, and trust.”
Is this work easy? No. The challenges that arise can challenge our compassion and very purpose. And in so doing, they become gateways to deeper our compassion even further.
For example, at one event at a women’s shelter, we were excited to share lunch and donated gift bags as well as free haircuts, manicures, and makeup applications. As five of us cut and styled, I noticed one guest observing but not partaking. Since she had not signed up in advance, she was on the waitlist. At one point I noticed her pulling a beautiful Indian silk scarf from one of the gift bags and tossing it across the room. I was shocked. How could someone so thoughtlessly discard such a thoughtful gift?
At closing time, the manager approached me and pointed to one more guest who wanted a haircut. It was her.
Acquiescing but still angry, I asked her, “What kind of haircut do you want?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I need to know so I can proceed. What do you think you would like?”
“I don’t know.”
I was losing patience.
The manager got involved. “You need to let her know so she can help you.”
“I don’t know.”
I took a deep breath, realizing at that moment she needed not only to help in deciding – she needed to feel special.
“Why don’t we give you a good cleanup on your haircut and style it. How does that sound?”
While trimming her hair, I said, “If you don’t want the scarf that was in your bag, I know other guests would like it.”
She said, “No, I’ll keep it.”
When I finished she said, “Thank you.”
Humbled and somewhat ashamed, I came to recognize this woman as a great teacher. In the midst of flowing generosity, I caught myself judging and withholding compassion, the exact barriers to kindness I was working so hard to erase.
Although a haircut may seem a simple gesture, our guests have said, “I feel normal;” “Proud of how I look,” and “It’s nice to be touched.” They’ve told our volunteer stylists, “Thank you for not forgetting about us,” and other similar sentiments. We believe our services help our guests approach the next step in their lives.
Interacting with my community — and meeting like-minded community leaders — has enriched me far beyond my imagination. Listen to more about my Haircuts with Heart journey and find the one thing you could do to make a meaningful contribution to the community here.
Finding Your Way
In closing, we’ve come to realize the lack of access to personal hygiene can be related to depression and mental health issues and can cause people to further retreat into the shadows. Haircuts via our personal-care-day experiences can serve as an opening for other health services.
One experience stands out in my community work. At an event called Welcome Wednesday’s at ROOTS Community Health Center, a slight man of about 50 years old, sat in my chair.
As we began to cut his hair, and he shared where he was from, he began to openly cry. Cheeks wet with tears, he mentioned his mother died in his arms just over a year ago. Then his birthday arrived, and now he has to face Mother’s Day. “If I can just get through Mother’s Day I’ll be fine. She always told me the importance of personal hygiene. I was just walking by today and saw the sign that you were offering haircuts. I told myself, “you just have to get over your pride, and get some help.” I’ve been homeless for a while now. I’m trying to find work. When I walked in, they signed me up for Medicaid, I’m sitting here, and next, I’ll go to the pantry for food.” I said, “Your mom would be so proud of you right now, getting the support you need, getting cleaned up.” Still crying, the guest sitting next to him receiving a haircut, patted his shoulder, said, “You’ll be okay.”
This experience revealed to me how haircuts can serve as an opening for our unhoused neighbors to get the other necessary health services they may need, and yes, there is much more to a haircut.
Although I share this story with you, I do not believe that offering haircuts to the unhoused is the only way to give back. I found my way. Now, find yours.
When you and the members of your team think about your values
Write your value statement for your salon.
When you look at your values, consider what cause really matters to you.
Research local organizations and volunteer your services. The need is great out there, so it doesn’t just have to be haircuts. The list is long of what you can offer.
Pick up trash regularly at a park near you with your team.
Offer storytelling to a youth center.
Offer a regular food drive in your salon
Offer a regular clothing drive for a women’s shelter
Offer a regular book drive for a local school
Offer yearly beautifying service for a local school or shelter
Offer a bi-yearly haircutting event for school teachers or front line workers
Just to name a few. I do hope you will find inspiration here and embark on your journey in finding the one thing you can do to make a difference in the lives of those who are less fortunate.