Barbershops have long been cornerstones of the Black community. In 2001, Robert Cradle, a Baltimore-born barber, decided to open up his hub to people even if they couldn’t afford his services. He reached out to a homeless shelter near his barbershop in Fort Meade.
“I realized that the residents mostly women and children, couldn’t afford hair cuts or to be groomed regularly,” Cradle explained during a phone interview with the AFRO.
He started giving free hair cuts and grooming supplies to those in the shelter. By 2003, he had closed his shop to offer those services full time to people who couldn’t afford regular grooming.
He formed the non-profit, Rob’s Barbershop Community Foundation. More than 10 years after giving that first free cut, he’s helped over 6,000 people clean up their appearance.
“It feels great,” he said. “It gives me a sense of purpose and I’m pretty much maxing out my skills and talents for good…Some people don’t feel fulfilled, even people with jobs that make good money. I don’t walk around feeling like ‘there’s got to be more to life than this.’ I feel that I’m doing something that makes a difference.”
Through his non-profit, Cradle has set up barbershops and other grooming programs in transitional houses in the Greater Baltimore area. He contracts barbers and hairstylists to keep up with demand, but he still makes time to cut as many people as he can.
He’s been cutting Chevelle Tucker’s hair for the last two months. “I didn’t have money to go and get haircuts,” said the 45-year-old. “It really boosts my self-esteem, a lot. When you leave your chair you feel good about yourself.”
Cradle launched the Gifts for Grooming Program, which allows donors to contribute to the mission, ensuring the homeless are groomed as they head out on job interviews or to school or work.
“It’s about equality,” Cradle said. “Every place you go today–gas station, supermarket, the hair salon– there is always someone who can’t afford to go where you go. Every customer can just blow a couple of pennies to the guy behind him who can’t afford to come. It’s about giving everybody the chances that you get every day that you don’t even think about it.”
Children inspire him the most, he says, especially his 8-year-old daughter.
“She see’s me and she’s starting to piece together what I do. She knows “daddy helps homeless people,’” Cradle said. “And children are another reason why what we are doing is so important. The number one sign a child is being neglected is his appearance…appearance is normally a symptom of a bigger problem.”
And projects aren’t limited to homeless shelters. He even converted a classroom into a barbershop in Franklin Square Elementary School.
Cradle is being honored for his volunteerism. He was named an Allstate Give Back Day hero last month; a prize for embodying the principles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Allstate donated $2,500 to his foundation and honored him at the King Center in Atlanta on MLK weekend.
The funding couldn’t come at a better time.
The downward state of the economy has hit the non-profit. “We’ve had to cut back on projects since 2008. In 09’ we were running six projects, now we’re down to one a year,” he said. “Sad to say, because of the economy our donations have flipped about 50 percent.”
The organization stays afloat almost entirely through donations from private groups and individuals who believe in the cause.
High unemployment rates have also altered the organization’s clientele. They see mostly Black men with an average age of about 38-years-old, but ever since last year, the non-profit has seen a spike in homeless White males and people who were previously middle class.
But leaders at the Lighthouse shelter–one of Cradle’s project sites this year–say his services are having an impact on everyone that walks through their doors.
“Rob is doing hair cuts for some people who haven’t had a hair cut in quite some time. It’s building up their self confidence,” said Kristy Blalock, a program director at the Lighthouse. “Its amazing what a hair cut can do for someone.”
“The beautiful thing about what we do is that it’s not a charity it’s a system,” he said.
“Many of the group’s projects train the homeless to be self-reliant, and groom themselves. We teach the ladies how to style their hair and their children’s hair and give them grooming tools.”
Cradle says his next goal is for the non-profit to become an intermediary for a larger agency.