Merlene Davis: Foundation offers gift of grooming and a new life

Byron Smith posed for a portrait next to his work station at the Lexington Academy of Barbering in Lexington, Ky., on Wednesday July 3, 2013. Photo by Tessa Lighty | Staff
Byron Smith posed for a portrait next to his work station at the Lexington Academy of Barbering in Lexington, Ky., on Wednesday July 3, 2013. Photo by Tessa Lighty | Staff Herald-Leader

Byron Smith can't wipe the smile off his face.

He is about to get married.

He is studying to be a barber.

His future is blinding.

But Smith will be the first to tell you his life hasn't always been this positive.

About a year ago, he was released from prison after serving five years on drug charges. Knowing something had to change, he learned carpentry, masonry and fiber optics while incarcerated so that he could live a law-abiding life upon re-entry into society.

He discovered, however, that even though he was girded with those marketable skills, no one would hire him.

"I couldn't even get a fast food job," said Smith, 35.

Determined to stay on the path his family had always envisioned for him, Smith decided to explore barbering, a profession he had "dibble-dabbled" in when he was younger.

"About 80 percent of my friends are barbers," he said. "I hung out in barber shops. But I found out I couldn't afford it, with me just getting out and having no money."

Anthony Hayden, owner of The Lexington Academy of Barbering, understands there are a lot of people in that same boat, people who don't have enough money to start a new life. So he decided to do something about it.

Since opening the barber school in 2008, Hayden has informally instituted a "paying it forward" concept in which he accepts students who have only partial tuition payments and allows them to cut the hair of the homeless, the recovering addicts, and the unemployed for free until the difference is made up.

Tuition at the academy is $5,000 for 1,500 hours of training, and barber tools are an additional $1,100, Hayden said. The school helps students apply for financial aid, including help from the Kentucky Office of Vocational Rehabilitation for those who are ex-offenders. About seven or eight students were helped that way, Hayden said.

"Then we got the idea to turn this into a non-profit," Hayden said. "That way we can afford to do this on a bigger scale."

The Lexington Academy of Barbering Community Foundation was established in April, which Hayden hopes will encourage others to help him, with tax-deductible donations, put people back on their feet.

"We currently have people who can't afford the tuition," Hayden said, "and we let them stay in school until we can hopefully raise the money for them. But we won't hold back anybody's license because they can't afford it."

Smith is a beneficiary of that new push.

But there is more to it than helping with money.

Hayden said the students must act and dress professionally during the 10 months or so they are students, and they must attend classes regularly.

Hayden said he came from a family of 13, and remembers times when he would go to bed on Christmas Eve with no evidence of a tree or gifts. But the next morning, there would be a "big pile of presents."

"Right then, I noticed it feels good when people give to you when you need something," Hayden said. "Barbering is the field I happen to be in and I want to give back that way."

Smith said Hayden and the school's director, Brenda Yates, have been encouraging and helpful.

"My story is a testimony," Smith said. "When times were hard, I almost broke down. I was ready to go back to hustling, but they gave me wise words and kept me grounded."

And when he graduates and gets his license this fall, Smith is more than willing to help others just like people have helped him. "Sometimes you have to bend over and help someone without expecting something back," he said.

Hayden, who also has worked at Exquisite Belvedere Barber Shop for 17 years, agrees, but he needs a hand from us.

He has been working with the Hope Center, referring those clients to his graduates. But he needs more agencies whose clients could use a shampoo, shave and haircut to boost their spirits.

And he could use a little financial support to bridge the gap in tuition and fees.

Hayden said he hopes giving back becomes something the students will eventually do on their own, without being required to.

"We hope it will be contagious," he said.

To Help

The Lexington Academy of Barbering Community Foundation is helping the unemployed and ex-offenders become barbers through The Lexington Academy of Barbering school.

To donate: Donations can be made at any Central Bank location, or send checks to the foundation at 1132 Winchester Rd., Suite 175, Lexington, Ky., 40505. Or call (859) 231-1820.