Promise Heights Elementary Students Find Connection with Baltimore Hair-stylists and Barbers over Haircuts

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The buzzing sounds of hair clippers and kids playing echoed throughout a spacious room inside The Historic Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School. Ghorpu Woah-tee, the Promise Heights Community Outreach and Engagement Coordinator at the elementary school, welcomed eleven beauty school students from The Baltimore Beauty and Barber School into her school.  

The adults — practicing to become hair stylists and barbers — etched a variety of haircuts, including fades, brush cuts, star-shaped patterns, and braids styles, and offering free haircuts to the students. In April and May, this room was a training ground for the next generation of neighborhood barbers and hairstylists thanks to the Allen AME Church in West Baltimore connecting Willie Thompson, a Senior Instructor at the beauty school and Ms. Woah-tee.

The haircuts and hairstyles also turned out excellent for the kids. Though, for some of the children facing critical life challenges — including food and housing instability; persistent neighborhood violence, poverty, and drug addiction — the barber chair can become a safe place where they feel comfortable telling it all.

"Some of these guys live in the same area these kids live in,” Thompson said, referring to the special bonds he's witnessed grow between hair stylists and their clients. 

“Many of these kids will go to the barbershops and see the same [barbers and hair stylists] who've cut their hair when they were elementary,” he said.

During a conversation about the latest Marvel superhero movie, John-Erik Orsie encountered this kind of connection with the student sitting in his barber chair. Orsie heard the child grieving over a stepfather he had lost to an accidental drug overdose, as he recalled the nearby movie theater where his stepfather would take him and his sister.

 “Then he said that he no longer goes [to the movie theater] because it brings a lot of [emotions] and it's too hard for his sister,” said Orsie.  

The moment also became a vulnerable one for Orsie who shared the experience of losing a loved one. He shared his condolences and told the child to keep his surviving family members close. 

Orsie says moments like this impel him to view his barber chair as a safe space for his clients, especially for the young men, to share stories and strategies for improving their emotional and mental health.

“It's all about just creating connections with people because that's what part of this job is about,” said Orsie. 

Both Ms. Woah-tee and Thompson said they’ll continue to have these events where student hairstylists, barbers, and entrepreneurs from the Baltimore Beauty and Barber School interact with The Historic Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School and provide free haircuts for kids.

Near the end of the event, Ms. Woah-tee described the overwhelmingly positive response she received from parents. 

“We did receive a card from a parent thanking these wonderful individuals for the services that they have brought to our school," she said.  

The card read: 

"To the Cosmetology group, Thank you. What you are doing for the girls is a wonderful act of kindness. I want to thank you all for giving us your valuable time and skills. You all are greatly appreciated."