A salon offers help and hope

Photographs by Susie Biehler

Josh McGill gives a young client his first haircut. Photograph by Susie Biehler

GOOD WORKS | Barbara Kate Repa

On a sunny afternoon in late March, Christine Coppola pulled up to the Compass Family Shelter on Polk Street and opened the trunk of her car to unload an unlikely stash: a collection of combs, brushes, blow dryers, towels and hair potions and products.

Coppola has worked at Renaissance Salon, a block off Fillmore at 2600 Sacramento Street, for 19 years — and owned it for the last 15. For several months now, she has been leading a group of hair stylists who deliver the gift of grooming to the families living temporarily at the shelter.

Within moments of arriving at the shelter, she and two other stylists at Renaissance — Sara Nowacky and Josh McGill — transformed a basement area just off a communal kitchen into a makeshift salon. “It’s a little difficult not having the right chairs and all, but we make do,” Coppola explained cheerfully.

Her first haircutting session at the shelter was last September and she has returned every eight weeks or so since then, enlisting a group of hairdresser friends from Renaissance and elsewhere. Shelter residents sign up for a styling session in advance; there are usually 10 to 20 clients.


Coppola divined the idea after a friend asked her to volunteer as a babysitter at the shelter so the parents could get a break. That friend was Heidi Sabelhaus, owner of three women’s boutiques on Fillmore, who has volunteered at Compass for several years and spearheaded the babysitting service. While lending her hands and heart to babysitting, Coppola noticed that many of the children had unkempt and tangled hair. So she organized the makeshift salon.

“It’s nice to be able to give something to others,” she said. “And it seems like haircuts can often make people feel better about themselves. It’s especially important for the kids, I think. They’re innocent bystanders in life — and if they go to school, it’s really important for them to feel good about how they look — not to get singled out by the other kids.”

During the visit in March, a little boy in bibtops waited his turn serenely in a high chair as his nervous dad supervised and fidgeted. “He’s only 15 months old,” the dad explained, “and it’s his first haircut.” A toddler getting a trim in the next chair began to squirm and cry, then managed a smile when he saw the final results in a hand-held mirror.

Photographs by Susie Biehler

Christine Coppola shows a young client his new cut. Photograph by Susie Biehler

The adult clients were mostly serious and quiet; the sessions lack the usual gossip and chatter that so often flows between the stylist and the styled. One woman specified she wanted to keep her long locks all one length; another asked for “just a trim” to her layered brown hair — all the while beaming at her young son in the chair next to her, whose hair was being transformed from an unruly mop into a short boyish ’do.

While she’s had some repeat clients at Compass, Coppola said it is difficult to forge relationships because residence at the shelter is a temporary.

“It’s not what I expected it would be,” Coppola said of the shelter’s styling sessions. “I thought I’d just go in and cut kids’ bangs. But some of the women here haven’t had their hair cut in a very long time. With the women, you can immediately tell they feel better with a haircut. And if we can take care of their kids, too, it’s icing on the cake.”

Bianca Espinoza, a Renaissance client, works at the Compass shelter as a bilingual housing specialist helping find permanent housing for families in crisis. Compass Family Shelter provides 22 rooms of temporary shelter for families, she said. They can stay for up to six months, during which time they also get help with job training, placement and advocacy to help secure benefits and future housing — in addition to onsite child care, yoga, knitting and offsite field trips. There’s a waiting list of more than 200 families for the city’s three remaining public shelters, Espinoza said.

Coppola hopes to keep the momentum of the haircutting program going and perhaps even expand it to include more shelters. “I’d also like to inspire more hairdressers to get involved — to do something outside their usual jobs,” she said. “This work can really open your eyes to someone else’s reality. And you never know: Some of the shelter residents may even be inspired to become stylists.”

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