Robert Cradle had achieved his goal of owning a successful barbershop with an Odenton establishment that employed seven full-time workers and served a steady stream of customers coming in for that just-right haircut.
But even as he made his business dream come true, he also noticed a steady stream of people taking up residence at an adjacent homeless shelter.
Cradle discovered that many at the shelter couldn't afford to maintain good grooming habits while they were struggling to get back on their feet. So he set up a box for donations in his shop, and within a year had collected about $2,000, more than enough to offer free services to his struggling neighbors.
A cut, a shampoo, a shave, a new hairdo — they all led to the founding of Rob's Barbershop Community Foundation, a full-service, nonprofit barber and beauty salon that provides grooming services at no charge to adults and children in homeless shelters in Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City and Washington.
Cradle launched the organization in 2000, and a few years later sold his barbershop to run it full time.
Since then, his foundation has provided more than 19,000 grooming services to more than 6,800 individuals. As of last week, it had provided 841 haircuts in 2013, with more to come. The foundation also offers shampoos, shaves, and relaxer and hair coloring treatments.
"It makes me feel like I'm reducing a problem, legitimately and literally," said Cradle, 46, an Odenton resident who grew up in Baltimore. He runs the organization with his wife, Terri, contracting with barbers, soliciting volunteers and working with outreach agencies to implement grooming service projects, most of them set up at homeless facilities.
Offering haircuts and grooming services is a way to offer a boost in self-esteem for those in need. For people who are struggling, such services are a luxury.
"Agencies tell me that as far as grooming goes, if a person lives below the poverty level, they place grooming services and their appearance pretty low on a list of basic needs, after such things as housing, food, transportation," said Cradle. "Their money pretty much has to go elsewhere."
Among recipients of his services are residents of Sarah's House, a Fort Meade-based facility that offers emergency and transitional housing for homeless families in Anne Arundel County. The facility is near where his former barbershop was located, and Cradle often uses Sarah's House as a base to cut the hair of Anne Arundel public school children, including students from Meade Heights Elementary, MacArthur Middle and Meade High.
"It's really exemplary, because it's not as if we have that resource readily available here for families, many of whom are struggling with day-to-day things," said Bruce Clopein, volunteer resource manager for Sarah's House. "He does this not only for the kids, but he's cut hair for many of the adults as well."
Cradle has also visited Lighthouse Shelter in Annapolis; and he provides haircuts for students in need at department stores on the Sunday before the first week of school.
He said he receives funding for his organization from such sources as charity arms of corporations, private grants and private donors. Cradle has been recognized for his work on two national community service campaigns for Allstate Insurance, this year and last year. This month he was among 10 Baltimore-area recipients of a Dunkin' Donuts Community Hero Award.
Sarah's House resident Delores DuBose of Annapolis, who lives at the shelter with her 5-year-old son, Isaiah, brought the boy to Cradle for a haircut on the Monday before Christmas, two days after hearing about the service.
"At least I know my baby can go to school with a clean-cut haircut, and not pretty much looking like how our situation is," DuBose said.
Cradle said that from the outset, he figured his venture would work out, especially after his customers saw that their donations went to something they could literally see as a benefit to their neighbors. Nowadays, he says, he offers his donors haircuts as well.
"I run my organization during the weeks, and I still cut my old customers' hair on the weekend," Cradle said.
At Sarah's House, Clopein said he's become one of Cradle's regular customers.
"He's served a lot of people over the years. And it's not just his service, but his manner with the kids," Clopein said. "There's not a lot of positive male role modeling going on here, so that's an added dynamic for the children."