A good Samaritan of shears, shampoo

Barber: An Odenton man uses his skills to help the needy.

October 07, 2002|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

At the Oasis homeless shelter in Baltimore, a man carrying a plastic bag and a backpack hesitantly enters the cavernous, nearly empty room - its brick walls newly painted pale pink.

"They told me I could get my hair cut here," he says softly.

Rob Cradle warmly welcomes the man to his makeshift barber's station - his clippers, scissors, towels and aftershave neatly set up on a windowsill. Once seated in the chair, the man - whose name is Michael - closes his eyes as Cradle begins to trim with the electric clippers, finishing with a splash of aftershave and a brush of the shoulders to whisk away fallen hair.

As Michael gets up from the chair, Cradle says, "I appreciate it, man," and hugs him.

In the past year, Cradle and the haircutters at his Odenton barbershop have provided more than 1,000 free haircuts to residents of homeless shelters, patients at mental health clinics, and families who can't afford regular trips to a salon or barbershop.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on Page 1A of yesterday's Sun gave incorrect information about a man interested in work at an Odenton barber shop. The man has six children, not eight, and was not recently released from jail. The Sun regrets the error.

With scissors, shampoo and a practical brand of spirituality, Cradle, 35, uses his bustling shop and his skills as a barber and businessman to reach those in need. Last year, he started a nonprofit foundation that collects and distributes personal hygiene products; soon he hopes to open an after-school homework club in the neighborhood.

"I thought: `OK, I'm a barber. So what can I do as a community service?'" said Cradle, a soft-spoken, deeply religious man who wanted to put his faith to work in a concrete way. "I use my business to show my faithfulness, to make the best of what is given to me."

Some may question whether a haircut can really make a difference to a person who is homeless or has been laid off from a job. But Cradle and the agencies he works with have seen it happen again and again.

`Like new people'

"It's an awesome sight, to be honest with you," he said, noting that a clean-cut appearance may help somebody land a job or find housing.

Or just feel better about himself.

"They look forward to it, and when they come back they're like new people with smiles on their faces," said Mary Catten, day program coordinator at Vesta Inc., a nonprofit psychiatric day program in Odenton for mentally ill adults. Cradle regularly provides free haircuts to Vesta clients at his shop.

"They feel like they're part of their community for those moments they're there," said Catten.

Cradle and the handful of volunteers whom he relies on also visit community service programs in the Odenton area and Baltimore. In addition to giving haircuts, Cradle arranges for presentations on personal hygiene, nutrition and positive thinking.

"I can't think of any individual who's touched us in so many different ways," said Bruce Clopein, volunteer coordinator at Sarah's House, a homeless shelter in Odenton on the grounds of Fort Meade that mainly serves single parents and their children. He said the basketball nights that Cradle organizes at schools are a big hit with children at the shelter.

"I think he's somebody who truly has count of his own blessings and in turn passes some of them on to others in need," Clopein said.

A spiritual component

On a recent two-hour visit to the Oasis shelter on North Gay Street, Cradle focuses intently and doesn't engage in small talk as he works on five shelter clients. But he sends each one off with a hug or a prayer, recited as he joins hands with the man.

If they choose to, the men may sit down after the haircut with Eric Bland, Cradle's friend from church, to talk about religion or anything else on their minds. They may also help themselves to the hotel-size grooming products and small Bibles that Cradle has brought.

Michael leaves the shelter with deodorant and a Bible.

"It feels nice to get a haircut; in case you're going to an interview, you look groomed, and you just feel better," said the 32-year-old, who didn't want to give his last name.

As for the Bible, Michael isn't sure that it can help him.

"I haven't given myself to Christ yet, but I'm working on it," he said.

"These are uplifting kinds of services," said the Rev. Lonnie J. Davis, whose nonprofit agency, I Can Inc., operates the Oasis shelter. "A lot of men come in angry because they're humiliated, because they've got to ask for services. But if somebody does something out of love for them, that's a compassionate thing."

When he's not taking his barbershop ministry on the road, Cradle can usually be found at Rob's Barber Shop in Odenton, on a stretch of Route 175 lined with boarded-up storefronts about a mile from Fort Meade.

Cradle's rules are posted on a shop wall - "Our Shop Practices Respect to Our Customers," "No Foul Language or Subject Matter," "A Clean and Sanitary Environment," "No Inappropriate TV Programming."

The youngest of four, Cradle grew up in the neighborhoods of West Baltimore in a stable two-parent household - something that, he says, set him apart from most of his friends, who lived in single-parent homes.

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