What a difference a day makes, and a haircut.

As new year activity, we arranged for 12 free haircuts or manicures at the local beauty school. Six women could go one afternoon, six more a week later.

Amber has straight dyed blond hair, which with time shows dark roots. She doesn’t trust anyone messing with her hair so she cuts it herself. She styles it with bangs in the front that continue around her head as if in a short hair cut, about to her ears. The back, where she cannot reach, is long, below her shoulders. Amber asked if instead of a cut, for her hair to be washed and styled.

When they finished, the graceful woman inside Amber was shining. Beautiful ringlets fell down her back. Bangs, shaped around her face, were anchored with pins. All of it was held steady with hair spray. One of the other women remarked, “You look beautiful Amber, like you are going to a prom!” She replied “I never got to do that.”

It was a rainy, somber day, but Amber left almost smiling (while trying not to show her bad teeth). The next day, when she came to the center, her hair was still pinned, as it was the day before. The curls had relaxed and were almost gone, but she was still smiling.

Missy also went with us that day, a young mom with a 9 month old baby. Her long hair is usually pulled back in a ponytail. Missy had been living at a local group home for moms, while working toward family reunification after her little one after he was taken from her by the state. She had turned her life around, graduated from the program and returned home just before Christmas. Missy anticipated the haircut day eagerly. She was planning to go on a trip with her boyfriend and wanted to look her best. It felt like a graduation ritual that symbolized and celebrated her transitions.

But, they could not cut her hair that day, or that of two other women. They were told they had lice and would need to leave the premises. The two older women had experienced lice before and took it in with seemingly little effort. Missy however fought back tears and worried what her boyfriend would think. The older women attempted to console and lift Missy’s spirits. We all left, taking the feelings of embarrassment with us. I drove Missy to the medical clinic where she could get de-licing shampoo, and promised her a haircut before she went on her trip.

Two weeks later, we made an appointment at a salon. Chrissy, the hairdresser asked Missy what she wanted done. Missy could only describe “shorter, so the baby can’t pull it!” Needing more detail, Chrissy coached her in looking through books to find a style she liked. Missy flipped through page after page and after pointing to several similar cuts, Chrissy showed her a wig that was in the style of the pictures – a bob, about ear length, stacked cut in the back, long bangs in front. That was it.

The first time Missy left with tears. This time she left smiling, head held high, back straight, eyes sparkling. She liked it!

What a difference a simple haircut can make in self-esteem. Most of the women commented on how good it felt to have someone wash their hair. Just those few moments of having another person massage the scalp, then cut and style hair, changed faces and postures. How long it would last? Perhaps only a day or two, maybe longer. But it was worth it!

I don’t know why it took me so long to realize, but if you had to choose between buying food or beauty products, which would you purchase!? So we have added two things to our wish list: shampoo and other basic hair and body care items to give out when needed, and gift certificates to hair salons to use as birthday gifts.

The other part of the face that impacts self-esteem is the mouth. Dental care is a harder nut to crack, but we can at least stock toothpaste, brushes and floss. And we’ll support and encourage the annual free dental clinic in town, and host a mobile dental hygiene clinic this summer.

Thank you Bernards, and Chrissy for making all this happen. You were gracious hosts. And thank you Amber and Missy and the others who joined in the haircutting days. Such a simple thing, a haircut, though a luxury for some, but what a difference it can make. We have all learned something important about self-image. Your faces said it all.