HYATTSVILLE, MD- Jose Zambrano was going down the wrong path until a trip to the barbershop changed his life. At 14 years old Zambrano entered Master Barber Fred Spry’s barbershop and explained how he cannot get his hair cut that often, because he does have enough money. As a result, he cuts it himself. With that information, Master Barber Fred Spry along with his brothers, Russell and Raneir Spry, gave Zambrano a free pair of clippers. This step was Zambrano’s first experience with becoming part of The Barbershop Credible Messenger Mentoring Program, and it was one he will never forget.
The Program strives in its mission to uplift, revolutionize and advise at-risk youth who are in the juvenile justice system or in urban communities. Men and women who have once been in the system or at-risk as juveniles are called upon to form and structure a relationship with these adolescents to transform their perspective on life and contribute to changing their behavior.
Barbershops are a sacred sanctuary in urban communities, because it is a safe space for all different types of people to discuss social issues, politics and for the young adolescents in the neighborhoods to get fatherly advice from the “Original Gangster’s (OGs),” of the neighborhood. All these factors were considered when the idea of The Barbershop Credible Messenger Mentoring Program came into fruition.
Louis Henderson, the founder of the Program, has devoted his life to youth development. He has an organization called Siblings Together USA, and its main focus is to nurture children by providing programs and activities to those who have been separated from their families due to foster care and adoption. He gives these children the opportunity to build and grow, so eventually they would be able to reunite with their families. His assistance to the community doesn’t stop there, as he also has a group home for young girls whose lives have been affected by sex trafficking. His purpose for providing these programs to different communities stems from his experience growing up in the foster care system.
The Program was initially created in California, then New York, then it expanded. The program tries to find credible people from the streets and who can convey a message to young people, including ex-offenders. “What I realized was that barbers are a real credible messenger in the community. You think of a young person who sits in a chair for 30 minutes at a minimum then all the barbers need to do is give them the tools for the young people,” said Henderson.
The Barbershop Credible Messenger Program does not only develop the children, but the barbers as well. The barbers undergo training that strengthens their knowledge in positive youth development. This training teaches the barber how to focus on a young person’s strength, and prevents the mentor from only focusing on the youths’ negative characteristics. By shifting the focus, the program believes the spotlight builds on the youth’s positive characteristics. The training also focuses on how the barbers should handle trauma as the young person probably experienced and faced many difficult situations, such as, murder, physical abuse, and violence. The barbers try to teach life skills, so the youth learn how to deal with the past trauma.
One of the more significant factors of this program is family engagement, because Henderson does not engage with anyone’s child without permission from the family. “I would go up to the family and explain that I met their child and that they talk to me, so I would like to let you know who I am and what I am doing. And whether or not you feel like I have something to add with what you are doing already,” said Henderson.
Master Barber Fred Spry, owner of The Shop, got involved in the program when he was approached by Henderson. He has been cutting hair, since he was nine years old and developed his expertise by the time he was 12 years old. However, he became distracted by peer pressure, which led him into trouble with the legal system. At age of 17, he was sentenced to prison for 10 years for drug charges. Fortunately, he only had to spend three years in prison and came home by age 21. After three years, Spry was able to open a barbershop with his brothers, which has become a staple in the community after 16 years. Spry even cuts Henderson’s hair.
“We ended up getting close in the community and the youth was able to relate to me, because I was at one point in time lost like a lot of the young guys in the neighborhood.” The youth started to follow Spry and listen to him. As a result, Spry became a community leader.
“I am able to give good advice and help them with family issues, disparities in the community, especially with health and the lack of a father figure in their house.”
Spry along with 22 other barbers in the area willingly play a role in the Barbershop Credible Messenger Mentorship Program and follow its mission. When guiding the youth Spry tries to be a good role model for the community. He recalls one mentee, who reminded him of himself when he was younger.
“I remember one particular guy and his mother was losing her house. He wanted to help his mother, so bad and he was the oldest son in his household at 14 years old. He didn’t know what to do. He could cut hair [a] bit, so we took him in and my brother decided to teach him how to cut. And now he is a barber with us today for 13 years now,” explained Spry. Spry continues to use his gift as a tool to connect young men in his community, and believes that investing in the transformation of the youth is part of the solution.
Zambrano used the opportunity that the Spry brothers gave him and took the time to invest in the craft of being a barber. “I used to go to The Shop after school and watch them cut hair. I also practiced and gave my friends free haircuts.” The hard work has paid off as he has been working at the barbershop for 10 years now.
The Barbershop Credible Messenger Mentoring Program recognizes and fundraises to pay the barbers a stipend for all their hard work with the youth. “It’s an additional cost,” says Henderson. “If a young person comes in and can’t afford to get his haircut, the barber has to use all same the products for them that they use for those who are paying. Although they would do it for free, it’s a cost to maintain the equipment,” says Henderson.
“We give the barbershops the opportunities to raise money, but we also put in for grants. Barbershop Credible Messenger is under Siblings Together USA. I use the umbrella of Siblings Together USA to identify funding to help to support the work that we are doing,” added Henderson.
His passion to build up the youth makes Henderson a champion in his own rite and has changed the lives of 1000 children age out of the foster care system. One of success stories is a young woman named Fria Wilson, who now works with Henderson.
“The Barbershop Credible Messenger Mentoring Program is a necessity for the youth, helps with their confidence and prevents them from being identified with their personal situations.”
“Being a part of this program was a real blessing when it started. It got me out of harm’s way. I grew up in a neighborhood where there is a lot of negativity and I was hanging out with people in the wrong crowd, who couldn’t help me progress in life. The barbershop brought me to a place where I can focus and help others and help me become a role model,” said Zambrano.
His advice for kids who might be going down the wrong path, “Never be afraid of change, make change positive.”
To get involved with the Barbershop Credible Messenger Mentoring Program, click on the Siblings Together USA website. “Time is more important than money. What is important that we want to see caring people in the lives of these young people,” closes Henderson.