By Keiko Kay Hirai
For The North American Post
Here’s how it all began…
One day in 1982, Richard, a good client of the salon, had an unusual request for me. He was the director of the Northwest Cerebral Palsy Center in Seattle and an active volunteer in the community. As he looked at his finished haircut, pristine as usual, he said to me, “Kay, I was wondering if you could do me a big favor.”
“Sure,” I said, “Go ahead.”
“I was wondering if someone from Studio 904 would be willing to come to the center and give haircuts to the young men who reside there.”
“Don’t they have someone who already cuts their hair?” I asked.
“Well, we do have a few stylists who come and give haircuts, but you should see what they do to our residents. They just carelessly buzz up their hair, making them look more disabled than they already are. These are young men and they care about how they look. I have been trying to think of a way to give them a great-looking haircut just like the one I got today,” said Richard, as he smoothed his hands over his freshly groomed hair.
“Let me see what I can do,” I told him.
I asked my staff if anyone would be willing to volunteer at the NCPC on their day off. No one jumped at the chance, so I decided to go myself. When I arrived, I was really nervous because I had never done anything like this before in my life. The large, two-story brick building did not appear very welcoming as it looked very much like a small hospital.
At the front door, though, I was immediately greeted by a friendly receptionist. “You must be Kay. The young men have been waiting for you. They are really excited to get their haircuts.” As she pressed one of the numerous buttons on her switchboard, she said, “I’ll call downstairs to let them know that you’ve arrived.” She continued, “Walk to the end of the hallway, take a left and then go down the stairs. You will find them in the room at the foot of the stairs.” When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I saw eight young men gathered in a room with a wide, open entry. They were either tied into wheelchairs or lying sideways on rolling beds. A damp, musty smell permeated the chipped, linoleum tiles within the yellowed walls.
Some of the men were middle-aged, but most appeared to be in their teens or a little older. They made wailing noises and their heads jerked from side-to-side in random motions. Their hands flapped and flung in excitement, as if to say, “We’re glad you’re here! We’ve been waiting for a long time to get our haircut!”
A woman walked over to me and introduced herself, “Kay, it’s nice to meet you. My name is Sue and I will be your helper today. These men are really excited because I told them that you will be giving each of them a designer haircut.”
As I began cutting their hair, I discovered how challenging it was going to be because most of them were not able to hold their heads up by themselves. Even with Sue’s assistance, they often jerked uncontrollably. I felt as though one slip of my scissors would result in a serious injury. The thought of that happening made me so nervous that it became tough to cut their hair with my usual confidence.
Sensing my tension, Sue tried to lighten the mood. She laughed and said, “Next in line is David. He has the funniest sense of humor. We gave him the nickname of “Mr. Ham” because he keeps us laughing with all of his funny jokes. Isn’t that so, David?”
David replied by giving me a big grin and belting out a shrieking noise that resembled “YEAH!”
He was a handsome, young man with a crop of sandy hair. He wore a faded, wash-worn t-shirt with a big logo splashed on the front. He appeared to be about sixteen-years-old. I said, “Hello David, I’m looking forward to cutting your thick crop of hair. I know I can give you a nice style.”
I sprayed his hair with water, while Sue covered his face with a towel. When his hair was thoroughly wet, I began cutting. His head quickly began to jerk back-and-forth. The severity of his movements grew so bad that I couldn’t continue with my cutting. Sue used her soothing voice, and as she held his hands, she said “It’s okay, David. Now, try to relax. We will be finished soon and then you will be one handsome guy with a new haircut.”
When Sue lifted his neck up so that I could cut his nape, his neck became wet with perspiration as he struggled to keep his head up. Even with Sue’s help and me cutting as fast as I could, it was still an exhausting process for all of us. It made me feel so sad to see this handsome, young man, fighting against every muscle in his body just to hold his neck steady long enough for me to trim his neckline. I thought to myself, “What did this young man do to deserve this life that was so hampered by the debilitating effects of cerebral palsy?”
When I was almost through with his haircut, I felt a wave of nausea creeping up toward my throat. I ran into the nearby restroom and closed the door behind me. I quickly found an empty stall. With my head above the toilet bowl, I threw up everything that was in my stomach. When the gagging finally stopped, I flushed the toilet and slowly walked over to the sink, looking at my pale and helpless image in the mirror. I splashed some cold water on my face, looked in the mirror again and gave myself a pep talk, “Kay, why are you such a weakling? Pick yourself up and go out there with a smile! Give them the best haircuts you can!” There were still four men waiting for their turn, so I gave them my best effort and eventually finished cutting everyone’s hair.
After I completed all of their haircuts, I gave each man a hand mirror so that he could see the finished result. Without exception, each young man let out the loudest cries of happiness and joy. Even though the sounds were mumbled, it definitely seemed to me that they were shouting, “I LOVE MY NEW HAIRCUT!” As I stood there and surveyed the entire group, it struck me how handsome they all were. I thought, “Too bad that most of the world will never have a chance to meet them and experience their extreme pleasure with such a simple thing as a haircut.” Seeing the twisted smiles on these men, as each one thanked me, was enough of a reward for my hard work. As I left the center, I made a promise to them that I would be back in four weeks to cut their hair again.
I provided these young men with regular haircuts for the next two years. Eventually, some of my staff members started to come with me. Most came only once, but a few continued for a longer interval of time. After I quit going, my guess is that they were relegated back to their old buzz cuts. That thought saddened me, but I reminded myself that I had made them happy for two years doing what I did best.
Looking back, I realized that I received a thousand times more from these young men than I ever gave to them. They taught me humility, gratitude and the acceptance of fate that plays out in our daily lives. Volunteering at the center was the beginning of how I was encouraged to give back to those in need. Inspired by my rewarding experience, a variety of community service programs were soon implemented at Studio 904 to help those whose lives could be positively impacted by a helping hand
Editor’s Note: Kay Hirai is the owner of Studio 904 Hair Design and author of two books – Keiko’s Journey and Yumi’s Life Lessons. Signed copies may be purchased at Studio 904 Hair Design on Mercer Island or at amazon.com and chinmusicpress.com. She can be reached at kh@studio904. Her website is <www.keikokayhirai.com>.