The 13-year-old boy has already coped with more than his fair share of challenges — including two months last fall when he was homeless. The last thing he needs to worry about is his hair.
On Sunday, one of the nearly two dozen barbers, weavers and braiders participating in Healing City Baltimore gave the teen a complimentary cut, shaving the sides of his head close to his scalp and styling the hair above his ears into neat architectural angles and swoops.
He emerged looking sleek, cool and utterly in control, his outward appearance echoing a newfound inner strength.
“The hard part of being homeless was not knowing where I was going to sleep each night," he said. “We moved from house to house and from free hotel to free hotel. But I just knew that with God’s help I was going to get through it."
He was among the roughly 150 youths and adults who participated Sunday in an unusual event at Coppin State University that was part of a slate of activities throughout the weekend sponsored by the grassroots organization Healing City Baltimore.
The Sun is not naming the 13-year-old because he is a minor in the foster care system.
Conversations with Style was inspired by the close relationship that can develop between barbers and beauticians and their customers, and by the rising number of Baltimore residents who have experienced trauma.
Organizers erected a pop-up salon in Coppin’s student center and paired it with a resource fair.
Participants could receive complimentary acupuncture treatments, get their makeup done and take a blood test that screens for diabetes. But mostly, visitors could lean back in the salon’s padded and super-comfortable reclining chairs, close their eyes and relax while a kind stranger massaged their scalps. There was a palpable easing of tension in the room.
“There is power in touch and in a hug,” said Lenora Davis, 53, who has lost five members of her extended family to street violence within the past decade. “It lets you know without words that someone is right there with you.”
Healing City Baltimore came together last summer after Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen drafted the Trauma Responsive Care Act to provide training and resources for city agencies that interact with children.
“When we introduced the act, we got a tremendous response from pediatricians, nutritionists, social workers and educators,” Cohen said.
“We expected to hear from hospitals and universities, and we did. But we also heard from barbers and beauticians who said, ‘We want to help.' ”
Troy Staton has run the New Beginnings Unisex Barbershop in Hollins Market for about a dozen years and organized the stylists who provided free services at Sunday’s event.
“Barbers are on the front lines,” he said.
“A barbershop is sacred ground, a sanctuary. We are the healers. And sometimes we also are the victims of crimes."
Death missed Staton by less than an inch Oct. 31, 2018. A man wearing a Halloween mask burst into the barbershop, shot and wounded a customer, and then fired three bullets that grazed the back of Staton’s neck. The gunman has never been arrested.
“I walked out of the hospital within hours,” he said. “It was not my time.”
He managed his own trauma by doubling down on his long-standing efforts to end the violence. Conversations with Style is among many social activism initiatives with which Staton is involved.
“We need to reclaim this city," he said.
The challenge is daunting. The victories might be small, but they are real.
Jasmine Berry, a supervisor of Arrow Child & Family Ministries, brought several youngsters to Sunday’s salon.
“Our kids,” she said, “are not always privileged to get their hair cut. But a lot of them struggle with issues of self-esteem. Something as simple as getting a trim can make a big difference."
The 13-year-old entered the child welfare system last fall. As his life stabilized, he began to respond.
As soon as the boy was freed from the barber’s chair, he called out “Mom!” He rushed over to Berry and wrapped his arms around her.
“He’s doing much better,” Berry said. "If there are challenges in his future, he’s learning skills to cope with them.”
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This story has been updated to remove the name of a minor in the foster care system.