Giving city youths tools to be a cut above the rest

Program: Among scissors and blow-dryers, participants learn how a good trim and self-respect can change lives.

February 21, 2005|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Robert Cradle stood in the middle of a small storefront hair salon in Severn, carefully surveying the activity around him: a dozen youths armed with scissors, blow-dryers and brushes helping each other trim, shampoo, braid and shave.

"Start from the roots and pull downward," said Cradle, demonstrating a round brush on a section of 9-year-old Brittany Fenwick's hair.

The girl winced as her sister, Shardae Fenwick, 13, took the brush from Cradle and tugged at her thick, dark tresses.

"Very good," Cradle said.

For the former full-time barber - who sold his Odenton shop in 2002 to focus solely on a nonprofit organization he founded five years ago - the purpose of this Sunday session was not to train a new generation of barbers. Instead, Cradle is out to prove that providing a dozen city youths with a good haircut and a few grooming techniques can change lives.

Every other Sunday, Cradle and his wife, Terri, leave their home in Odenton and drive to Southwest Baltimore - an area in which some neighborhoods are struggling with drugs and crime - to pick up the dozen youths in the program. They take them to church and then the salon, where the youths spend four hours learning grooming techniques and hair washing, cutting, braiding and styling.

"These kids have the potential to flourish when someone takes an interest in them," said Cradle, director of Rob's Community Barbershop Foundation, a nonprofit group that gives haircuts, grooming tips and personal hygiene products to those who can't afford them.

He added that many of the youths don't have the opportunity to leave their neighborhood often. "So for them," he said, "it's a trip away - and they look forward to it."

Several of the youths who attended the recent Gifts for Grooming session said the outings also boost their confidence.

"Being here shows us we can do something and believe in ourselves," said Shardae, a petite girl dressed in a pink track suit.

"It also shows us how to keep our hair in order," said Brittany and Shardae's sister, Monique Burton, 18, winding the silky hair of a mannequin into tight rows of braids.

The three sisters, like most of the participants in Cradle's program, are growing up in a single-parent, low-income home. Some of the youths have been exposed to drugs, violence and crime, and many have never had regular salon haircuts.

"If you're not high-income, it's expensive to get haircuts for all your kids," Cradle said.

Cradle, 37, grew up in a secure, two-parent home in Southwest Baltimore and landed a job cutting hair shortly after high school. Still, he said, he's spent enough time in the neighborhood to know the hardships most of the participants face.

"The peer pressure is really bad in these neighborhoods, and they can be tough," Cradle said. "The things we hear from some of these kids about what goes on is horrendous."

First profiled by The Sun in 2002, Cradle spent two years cutting hair for the homeless and mentally ill before deciding to expand his outreach to youths. Last summer he received a $20,000 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which he used to launch his salon program.

At first, Cradle said, he had doubts about how they would behave in the confines of the tiny shop - a seven-chair salon with a speckled, black-and-white linoleum floor and walls painted Bible verses. The shop is owned by foundation chairman Kevin Poole.

"I had some concerns that they would not behave well," said Cradle, who recruited the youths through Agape House, a Christian children's ministry in Southwest Baltimore. "I was pleasantly surprised."

After a few Sundays in the shop, Cradle said the youths began to show enthusiasm for salon skills, listening intently to the lessons given by his volunteers.

Throughout the three-hour sessions, they giggled frequently. And when they trimmed or washed the hair of a friend or a mannequin, they were proud of the results.

Edward G. Robinson, the pastor and president of Agape House who regularly interacts with the youths during meals and religious services, said: "I could tell they were feeling good when they left the program on Sundays because they looked better."

Robinson added: "You have to understand that it's very hard for kids in this community to start to have self-respect because there's trash and drugs on their streets and life has very little value. ... Considering all this, I've been impressed with how engaged this group is and how committed they are to the program."

Their commitment was evident during the recent session, as the youths circled their pretend clients with scissors and combs.

Although not all of them have plans to attend college, they said they dream of being lawyers, police officers, recording artists and doctors.

"I want to be a pediatrician," said Keisha Gant, 13, who attends Calverton Middle School.

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