By Sharon Pruitt-Young
In homes, churches and in braiding shops around Nashville, Brittany Starks and a team of dedicated volunteers are helping parents lighten their load, one braid at a time.
Starks’ idea was a simple one: offer to braid children’s hair for free in order to take away some of the stress for parents at the beginning of the school year. As anyone who’s ever gotten their hair braided can tell you, it’s an amazing deal: typically, getting your hair braided can cost hundreds of dollars and involve spending around five to six hours at a braiding salon, if not longer.
Starks made her offer in early August in a post on the “Hip Antioch” Facebook page. While she expected some interest, she never expected her idea to take off the way it did.
“I thought it was going to be five to seven kids, but it ended up being 35 kids,” she said about the initial response. She’s since lost count of how many kids have gotten their hair braided.
“It’s been very hard. I haven’t gotten any sleep. I’ve been extremely tired, but it’s very worth it,” Starks said. “I feel like I’m doing it for a good cause.”
And, she said, it all started after she experienced an act of kindness herself.
Starks’ service has helped parents and kids alike
The start of any school year can be stressful, but with COVID-19 cases on the rise due to the highly-transmissible delta variant, and explosive debates about mask mandates in schools, this year has been particularly difficult for families.
Having your child’s hair braided — which greatly cuts down on styling time in the morning, if not eliminating it altogether — is one less source of stress for parents, many of whom are likely already stretched thin themselves.
It’s something that Starks has experienced firsthand.
While braiding children’s hair, she’s had a chance to hear from parents about the different struggles that they’ve had to contend with — but having their kid’s hair braided for free is a source of relief. The parents she’s worked with, Starks said, have been immensely grateful.
It’s not just a godsend for parents, either; it’s a huge morale booster for the kids, who are dealing with the stress and uncertainty of returning to school during a pandemic.
In the beginning, Starks was doing everything on her own, but she was eventually able to gather more volunteers to join her.
She and other braiders have done hair at churches, in braiding shops, and on house calls.
They’ve been braiding hair in the evenings and on weekends, fitting it in around other responsibilities, which has been no easy feat for Starks in particular, who is a single mom of two and works three jobs.
“It boosts confidence,” Starks said. “Some kids, they came in, they weren’t smiling, they weren’t talking, and then, you know, as they get their hair braided, they start opening up a little more and then when they’re done, they’re just smiling and so happy. It’s a great thing to see.”
“When your hair is cute, I just feel like you feel so much better about everything,” she continued. “[If] your hair is done, you feel confident, you go into school with a fresh start — even though COVID-19’s bringing everybody down.”
While the effect of the pandemic on school-age children is still being studied, it’s clear students everywhere are still adjusting to a wildly different “new normal.”
Starks hopes to inspire others to start giving back
It was after she experienced unexpected generosity herself earlier this year that Starks was inspired to come up with a way to help others who may need it.
She was in the process of moving into a new home and going through a difficult period — many of her children’s clothes were still in storage and she was afraid that she wouldn’t have anything for them to wear for the start of the school year.
Then, she said, a friend of the family surprised her by giving her children new backpacks with two outfits each inside, as well as school supplies and a new pair of shoes.
That random act of kindness when she needed it most meant a lot, she explained.
“It wasn’t anything fancy, it was actually from Wal-Mart, but it didn’t matter to me because it was so nice that he just did it [at all],” she said. “[Because] I actually didn’t end up having anything for them to start school with.”
“It really meant a lot because I’m a single mother, I’ve been homeless before, I’ve been through some rough situations … so just anything, just to take a little pressure off, it makes you feel good,” she continued.
Moving forward, Starks and the rest of the volunteers have committed to dedicating one Saturday a month to continue the free hair-braiding service.
But while their time is free, they do have to pay for the supplies: after fielding requests from supporters, Starks has since set up a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the cost of braiding hair and other materials, and the group is nearly half way to reaching their $15,000 goal.
In the meantime, there’s one key thing Starks hopes other people learn from her story.
“I really hope that people start being more kind and helping instead of judging and always wanting to talk about someone because of their situation instead of helping them,” she said.
Luckily, that sentiment seems to be resonating: she’s been hearing from more and more hair braiders who want to help out, she said.
Clearly, kindness is catching.
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