Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A gift of pride, beauty in Sierra Leone

Diane Stevens could feel only compassion when she heard about the plight of people in Sierra Leone.

A friend who had visited the West African country showed her photos of a camp filled with amputees who were victims of the decade-long civil war that ravaged the country in the 1990s. Rebels gained infamy for their brutal tactic of hacking off civilians' limbs.

Stevens, owner of Cole Stevens Salon & Day Spa in Greenbelt, Md., then learned about a hairdresser in Sierra Leone who worked all day standing on one leg. The other had been amputated.

"I told the stylists, 'We complain about little things, but she's trying to make her money, and she has one less limb than we do,' " Stevens says. "It stayed on my heart."

War helped drive up the country's unemployment. Men who had been the sole breadwinners for their families had been left unemployable by war injuries. Part of the answer, Stevens thought, was right around her.

About two months ago, Stevens decided she had to do something to help. She recruited three other stylists from her shop to join her on an eight-day trip to Sierra Leone that started Sunday. The group, joined by three members of Stevens' church, will teach 300 women in the nation's capital of Freetown about hair treatment, hair extensions, manicures and pedicures, among other techniques. If the women could be taught new skills that would lead to employment, Stevens reasoned, it could help them in their efforts to support their families.

Stevens says there are job opportunities at salons in Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leoneans pride themselves on their appearance, particularly their hair, and the cosmetology program seems practical and likely to raise morale, says Jen Brauer of All As One, a charity in Washington state that operates an orphanage in Freetown.

The United Nations ranks Sierra Leone second-to-last in the world in development. In addition to severe unemployment, the country has an estimated 340,000 orphaned children and the highest infant mortality rate in the world.

"Many of the women in Sierra Leone are particularly vulnerable to becoming marginalized by society, and economic empowerment is greatly needed," Deanna Wallace, founder of All As One, says in an e-mail.

The women are underprivileged, lack education and are low in the social hierarchy. "It is encouraging to know that there are women in the U.S. willing to give of their talents and abilities to bring attention to a country that most of the world has forgotten."

The stylists' travel expenses were paid for by the spa's clients, who donated $13,000, as well as an $8,500 grant from their county government. Hair product manufacturers also donated some supplies, and the spa is paying the rest of the expenses.

The cosmetologists also hope to perform makeovers on more than 30 of the women who attend the class, Stevens said.

Shahida Razvi, who works in member services for the National Cosmetology Association, says she has never heard of cosmetologists participating in an international aid program.

The group is working with the religious missionary organization Thorough Life Evangelical. Salon employees Patricia Singh, Michelle Sadler and Kathy Perkins Scott, along with Marina Brown, Barbara Davis and Brenda Fuller, who attend New Song Bible Fellowship in Bowie, Md., with Stevens, are accompanying Stevens.

Source: A gift of pride, beauty in Sierra Leone - USATODAY.com