POWHATAN – The memory that stands out the most for Javier Agosto was watching a woman learning to cut hair while three young children clung to her shoulders and legs.
The woman’s husband had died of cancer and his family kicked her and her children out without possessions. They were living on the streets. She had no one to care for her children while she sought to learn this new skill so she did the best she could, he said.
And to top it off, she was learning to cut hair not in a classroom or special room but outdoors in the middle of a hot, humid jungle.
Seeing the woman’s determination to learn a skill set that could help raise her family out of poverty humbled Javier Agosto and was just one more confirmation to him and his wife, Maria, that they had done the right thing by participating in an international nonprofit called Hair Aid Inc.
The Powhatan residents flew to Indonesia in September to teach in one of the nonprofit’s five-day hair cutting courses. Volunteer hairdressers from around the world participate in the trips, which see them teaching five basic hair cuts to people living on the streets, in slum communities, or with ladies rescued from the sex trade and prostitution gangs.
“Every night after we were coming back from our project, we were meeting. Everybody shared the spirit for that single day of teaching,” Javier said. “We went over there with the purpose of helping these people and teaching them, but actually we were the ones changed.
“We saw a world that that is completely different than what we normally see in our regular day – the conditions and the joy of every day. Even if they have nothing, they want to give us so much. We cried every day. Sometimes you tried to be tough but it gets to the point where you have to break down,” he said.
The Agostos’ trip to Indonesia lasted from Aug. 28 to Sept. 9, although a good chunk on both sides of the trip was spent traveling to and from the Asian country. It was their first time participating with the nonprofit, but they are sure it won’t be their last, said Maria, who owns Studio 9:13 in Powhatan.
The inspiration for the trip actually started with a dream Maria had back in February. In the dream, she saw herself on a huge jumbo Asian jetliner with Javier, carrying her hair cutting tool bag, and helping those in need.
Four days after she had the dream, Maria saw an Instagram post from a hairstyling mentor about a trip she did with Hair Aid in Cambodia. Maria did a little more research, including reaching out to the nonprofit’s home base in Australia, and before she knew it, she and her husband had signed up to participate and were figuring out how to fundraise the money necessary to participate.
Javier wasn’t about to let his wife go to Indonesia without him. While he owns Carpenter’s Son Handyman Service LLC in Powhatan and works as a handyman, he attended cosmetology school, so he knew he could be of use.
Founder and CEO Selina Tomasich started Hair Aid in her native Australia. She had already started a similar program teaching poor people sewing skills in Manila. She and volunteers she recruited took donated sewing machines and taught short courses to people in Manila so they could work their way out of the slums. When she asked what other skills would be useful, the locals requested hair cutting.
Selina said in an email interview that she had no experience with hairdressing, but she was fortunate that many people with that skill were willing to share it. In the roughly six years since Hair Aid was formed, more than 3,500 hairdressers have helped Hair Aid in some capacity worldwide.
It is a little known fact that it is illegal for children in some countries to go to school unless they have a regulation haircut, Selina said. This creates a ready-made potential customer base.
“The fact that many people that live in poverty strive very had to send their children to school also means that they constantly have to pay for haircuts. Teaching people in local communities to cut hair, their own children’s hair, saves them money,” she said. “They can also cut hair in the community, bartering their services in exchange for food.”
It is unthinkable to many, but sometimes these parents have to make the choice to spend 50 cents on rice so their family doesn’t starve or 50 cents on a haircut to keep their child in school, Maria said.
The small nonprofit expanded to include trips to the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand attended by volunteers coming from all over the world, Selina said. Despite sometimes facing grueling conditions, volunteers have trained more than 5,000 people.
After the volunteers arrive, they go through an induction/cultural training, review the training manual, and pack of the kits that will be taken to the various sites where the courses will be held. Volunteers are placed in teams of two to four and travel to locations daily as a group.
Maria and Javier worked in two different spots in Denpasar, Indonesia. Maria’s group worked inside a church, while Javier was literally working out in the open in the middle of a jungle. Three other teams did their projects at a community center, a dump, and a jail.
Over the course of a little less than five days, volunteers work to teach five basic haircuts to the participants – straight across, diagonal-forward (long in front, short in back), diagonal-backwards (like shape of V in back), layered, and men’s haircuts.
On the final day, they demonstrate a few different styles, encouraging the learners to see what they can achieve with more practice, Selina said. Then they hold a celebration party and everyone that has completed the training and can do the haircuts gets a personal certificate from Hair Aid. They also receive a free scissors kit, with scissors, clips, a comb, and a cape to help them get started.
“The learners have such a capacity and limited barriers to learning. The desire to learn is fueled by a desperate need. They learn much faster than we do. The class is a very hands-on. The people are cutting hair within two to three hours of us arriving,” Selina said.
Much of the training is done on live people using volunteers from the local community, friends or family, and even workers in local businesses. There weren’t as many people at his location, Javier said, so some people got their hair cut multiple times. They also cut bamboo and put wigs on them to make makeshift mannequins.
“It was doing hair with giant spiders overhead and bats on the wall. The conditions were bad,” he said.
Maria said working with the women and seeing how much they have to overcome put things into perspective for her when she came home about “not sweating the small stuff.”
“Really when you look at some of the things that get on our nerves or challenges on a daily basis, they’re First World problems,” she said. “We came home from this trip where some people didn’t know where their next meal was going to come from or where they would sleep that night.”
Despite some harsh conditions, it was a great experience, and one they want to repeat, she added.
For more information on Hair Aid Inc., visit www.hairaid.org.au.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.