Yulanda Norton was in a bind. Her youngest daughter asked to get her hair braided before the start of school, but Norton couldn’t afford it.
“With the troubles we’ve been going through with money, I couldn’t afford it,” said Norton, 48, a mother of six.
Her daughter Janae, 12, who just started sixth grade, yearned for the confidence boost the braids would provide.
“At her age, she really wanted to look nice on the first day of school,” her mother said, adding that hair braiding can cost anywhere from $150 to $400, depending on the style.
Fortunately for Norton, she stumbled upon a Facebook post in a local group from a woman she did not know, offering to braid children’s hair free.
“Anyone know single parents who can’t afford to get their child’s hair done for school? I will braid it for free! Please DM me,” Brittany Starks wrote on Aug. 4.
Starks, 29, is familiar with the financial strain of being a single mother. She works three jobs to support her two children, Cayden, 7 and Ceniyah, 9.
She was compelled to offer her hair braiding services after a family friend spontaneously delivered backpacks full of school supplies, clothing and shoes for Cayden and Ceniyah in early August.
At the time, “I didn’t have anything for my kids to start school,” said Starks, who is in between homes and staying with her mother. “It meant so much to me.”
The unexpected gift made a big difference to Starks and her children, and it propelled her to pay it forward. Starks, who works two receptionist jobs, also braids hair part-time. Knowing how expensive the service can be — and that it dramatically reduces styling time — she decided to offer her skills to single mothers who were struggling to get their children primed for school.
“I braid, so I just thought, ‘Why don’t I braid kids’ hair for free for parents who can’t afford it?’ ” Starks said.
Plus, she added: “I know how my daughter feels when I do her hair. She has a whole different personality.”
When she wrote the Facebook post, she assumed only a handful of people would reach out, but before she knew it, she had 35 appointments booked.
Quickly, Starks realized, “there’s a huge need for this.”
Her Facebook inbox was suddenly full of messages from single parents, whose stories of hardship and financial challenges mirrored her own.
“I could really relate to a lot of the women who reached out, and it made me realize that what I was doing was truly important,” said Starks, who has struggled with homelessness and health challenges.
Given the overwhelming demand, Starks knew she needed to enlist help.
Hair braiding takes four to six hours per child, she said, and since there was less than two weeks before the start of school, Starks decided to recruit volunteers to ensure that all 35 children could get their hair done in time for the first day of classes.
She updated her original Facebook post to ask for helpers. When Donna Garcia, 32, saw Starks’s plea, she immediately offered to assist.
“She can’t do it alone, she’s only got two hands,” said Garcia, a mother of four who also braids hair professionally. “I let her know I’m willing to help.”
Garcia grew up with a single mother who worked two jobs, and she still remembers braiding her own hair in fifth grade because her family could not afford for her to get it done at a salon.
“I like to give back to anyone that needs help,” Garcia said. When a child gets their hair done, “they just feel like a brand-new person, which makes me feel good inside.”
Over the course of two weeks, Starks, Garcia and one other volunteer spent much of their spare time braiding the hair of 35 local children, who range in age from 5 to 18. They braided for countless hours in people’s homes, in a local church and in Starks’s mother’s hair salon in Nashville. Their efforts caught the attention of local news.
The hair-braiding process involves washing, blow-drying, detangling and finally dividing the hair into small sections and braiding it, Starks explained. The results last one to two months.
Braiding hair is “not an easy task,” Starks said, adding that it also requires numerous supplies — including combs, brushes, shampoo and conditioner, detangler, mousse, hair jam and additional pieces of hair to weave in — which she paid for out of pocket.
“I was happy that I was able to give back. What got me the most was seeing the kids smile,” Starks said.
When Janae Norton’s hair was finally braided and she looked in the mirror, “I felt cute,” she said.
The sixth-grader said she was nervous she wouldn’t be able to get her hair done for school, so once it was finished, “I felt relieved.”
Parents were relieved, too — and filled with gratitude.
“Brittany took care of everything. It was a big weight off my shoulders. She was a blessing,” said Norton, Janae’s mother.
When she realized the need for her services, Starks decided to make her hair-braiding an ongoing initiative. She plans to host a monthly event, and since many people asked to support her, she started a GoFundMe to help pay for supplies, insurance and renting a large space for volunteers and children to congregate one Saturday each month.
“If it’s going to help kids with confidence and make them feel better, I would love to keep doing it,” Starks said. “I also want to continue to support other single parents.”
Beyond easing back-to-school stress and boosting kids’ morale, she hopes to set a strong example for her own children and others in the community.
On a recent afternoon, “my daughter just yelled out: ‘Mommy, I’m so proud of you,’ ” Starks said. “The tears were just pouring down. Those words meant everything to me.”
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