Some students at the New LIFE School in the South Bronx, N.Y., use razors and scissors in addition to pencils and pens. The 10 students are learning to be barbers, with the hope of launching careers after graduation.
A ministry of Lutheran Social Services of New York (LSSNY), the non-parochial New LIFE School serves students with learning, language and emotional disabilities. It began the barber program last fall to teach students a vocational skill. Taught by master barber Guillermo Aquino, owner of Friendly’s Barber Shop two blocks from the school, the program prepares students to get a state barber’s license in addition to their diploma.
“I hope to be a barber,” said sophomore Frank Gurley. “I’m becoming really good at it. Barbering is fun and you can always make money because everyone needs a haircut.”
Aquino, whom the students call Mr. Willie (Guillermo means William in Spanish), agrees: “Barbering right now is getting big, especially in New York City. Today’s man cares a lot about how he looks. Barbering is always going to be a career because who’s not going to get a haircut?”
The program is a win-win for LSSNY because the barbering students get hands-on training while supporting another facet of the agency’s work. Each week the students travel to Brooklyn to give haircuts at LSSNY’s Muhlenberg Residence, single-room apartments for formerly homeless people.
Johnny Guzman, Muhlenberg’s supervisor of social services, said residents look forward to seeing the students. “Getting a haircut is not a service they often can afford,” he said. “It’s just a haircut, but it can be seen as a luxury for some people. To see themselves in the mirror helps their self-esteem. I think [that’s] one of the reasons why it’s so popular.”
Unique programs are nothing new to New LIFE, which is an acronym for Lutheran Initiative for Enrichment. Started in 2011, the school serves more than 200 third- through 12th-graders. More than 95 percent come from households living below the federal poverty level. The staff customizes programs to meet the students’ needs and supports them in overcoming socio-economic factors that can limit their achievement.
The barbering program, said Rachel Kornfeld, LSSNY executive director for education services, “is just another example of the ways that New LIFE School can change the trajectory of a young person’s life.”