Gisele Guerrero, owner of Gisele’s Salon on Larchmont Avenue, will receive an award for her Good Samaritan work at the ninth annual American Red Cross, Westchester Chapter’s “Community of Heroes” program at the Rye Town Hilton on Thursday, June 17. The program celebrates “ordinary individuals” who “performed extraordinary acts” and have given hope and enhanced the quality of life for their fellow Westchester residents. The Red Cross is honoring Ms. Guerrero for her volunteer work at HOPE (Help Our People Eat) Community Services Center in New Rochelle.
Since April 2009, she has provided free haircuts and a much needed morale boost to clients of the Sound Shore area’s largest food pantry and soup kitchen. From the 26 people at its first session, “Haircuts for Hope” now serves 35-40 men, women and children from New Rochelle, Mamaroneck and Mount Vernon. As follow-up to a one-time food drive to deliver canned goods, rice, diapers and monetary donations to the Center, “Haircuts for Hope” has grown to include “goody bags” donated by salon clients for everyone who comes for a haircut. Depending on need, the bags contain shampoo, conditioner, pads, toothpaste, tooth brushes, deodorant, razors, shaving cream, lotion, soap, Q-tips, diapers, Desitin ointment, baby shampoo and lotion, Tylenol, and formula. During the December holidays, “Haircuts for Hope” also provided Stop and Shop $20 gift cards, thanks to a generous gift from Hector Mena.
When she decided to offer her services to the men, single mothers with small children, disabled, handicapped, unemployed and elderly people at the Center, Ms. Guerrero had no examples to follow. She had no budget or hands-on experience working with people who could not afford to have their hair washed or cut. She was busy facing the demands of her own young hair salon in the midst of a sharply contracted economy. But to accept hair care as an unobtainable luxury for the needy at the Center, was unthinkable.
Ms. Guerrero’s “can-do” attitude and commitment to help the less fortunate led her to create a support network based on simple gifts of time, service, personal care items and funds. She proved that even in a paralyzing recession, neighbors can reach out and mobilize limited resources on a shoestring budget to deliver much needed help to the invisible poor.
Grateful recipients call Ms. Guerrero and her stylists “blessings”, “angels from heaven”, and “protectors sent by God.” They are thankful to be able to look and feel better about themselves, enjoy moments of dignity and fun in such hard personal times, and look more presentable for job interviews. Carol Troum, Director of HOPE Community Services, describes “Haircuts for Hope” as “a wonderful thing for our clients who don’t have access to haircuts or other things that make them feel good about themselves. Ms. Guerrero treats them with incredible dignity and makes it such fun.” Some people even ask Ms. Guerrero and her stylists for help finding jobs.
“There’s no other way to respond to the need for help in tough times than to lend a hand,” Ms. Guerrero says. “We are all connected, one way or another … There have been times in my life when good people helped me out, like when I got a second chance in life, emigrating from Lebanon in 1972 with my family, and a third chance when I overcame a life-threatening illness. Because of these gifts, I’ve always felt that I am here to make a difference in people’s lives. Once I fulfilled my lifelong dream of opening my own salon in 2008, I had the vehicle for bringing hope to people in need through community-wide acts of kindness and caring. It’s easier to ask people to help me help others through the framework of an established institution.”
When she saw the people at HOPE Community Services, Ms. Guerrero felt a duty to make a difference in their lives. “I knew in my heart that someone had to do something about their desperate situation. I’m sure that a lot of us feel that way but are afraid to take action,” Ms. Guerrero explains. “It was hard to get the money together but with perseverance and the generosity and support of my staff and many clients, we are helping “Haircuts for Hope” recipients get a break from some of the heartaches of life,” reflects this spokeswoman for the power of positive thinking. “We see the change on their faces right away … There are so many ways one can help – you just have to ask.”
Ms. Guerrero hatched the idea for “Haircuts for Hope” with early team members Lillian Brady, a business consultant, and salon stylists Sheila Fernandes, Mayra Ochoa, and Ana Rivera. Soon her community service team expanded to include stylists Michelle Giordano and Gaylene Goss, Skylar Baker, various salon clients, and Gisele’s daughter Priscilla Guerrero and granddaughter Soleil. Ms. Guerrero is especially grateful for generous contributions from L’Oreal, USA, and Reverend Herron-Piazza’s 9th grade confirmation class at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Larchmont.
“Haircuts for Hope” is not the first time Ms. Guerrero has embraced community service projects. After Hurricane Katrina hit, she donated proceeds from haircuts to the American Red Cross Katrina relief fund. She has given haircuts to women and children at the My Sister’s Place shelter, and offered workshops to graduates of the shelter. And for years at Thanksgiving and Christmas, Ms. Guerrero has provided free turkeys and other holiday fixings to the needy with supermarket receipt coupons donated by her clients.
Since 2008, when Gisele’s Salon opened, she has spearheaded broader communal efforts involving colleagues and clients at the salon. That year Ms. Guerrero collected $4,300 in less than six weeks, in a salon-based fundraiser for the Children’s Hope Chest of Westchester (a non-profit organization that helps children and families in crisis). In collaboration with the Junior League, salon stylists also provided cosmetic “makeovers” for recipients of help from the local Hispanic Resource Center. This year after earthquakes devastated Haiti, Gisele’s Salon sponsored a one-day “cut-a-thon” on March 7th which raised over $2,600 for “Midwives for Haiti” (a non-profit organization that sends certified nurse midwives to Haiti to teach essential skills to traditional birth attendants).
People often find it difficult to say ”no” to Ms. Guerrero when she asks for community support, because such giving helps solve a problem that they could never fix by themselves. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Ms. Guerrero’s fundraising sometimes involves raffles of goods and services donated by simpatico Larchmont merchants. When a community stands together like this, there is much to be gained on many levels.
To find out more about American Red Cross “Community of Heroes” awards, or to purchase tickets to the award program on June 17 (which is open to the public), contact Tricia@HRGinc.net or check westchestercounty.redcross.org.