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Free haircuts and a barbershop vibe help residents break through social isolation at Bloomington's Wood Hill Towers

Rick Lewis poses in front of Rochelle Gaston cutting hair
Ryan Denham
Bloomington-Normal Achievement Foundation board member Rick Lewis, right, as barber Rochelle Gaston delivers another free haircut at Wood Hill Towers on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023.

Rochelle Gaston’s favorite part about cutting hair is changing her customers. 

“They come in one way and I’m sending them out another,” Gaston said. “Hopefully it makes their day better. And just by a haircut you can change somebody’s life. And give them the experience of knowing their image is important.” 

Gaston did a lot of that over the past two days. She was the barber providing free haircuts and shaves to about 15 senior men during Cuts for Christmas at Wood Hill Towers, a public housing apartment complex for seniors just south of downtown Bloomington. The two-day event was a partnership between the Bloomington-Normal Achievement Foundation and the Bloomington Housing Authority, breaking through social isolation and getting the seniors looking their best before Christmas. 

"They come in one way and I’m sending them out another."
Rochelle Gaston, Bloomington barber

“I love the elderly, so it’s something near and dear. Without hesitation, I jumped at it,” Gaston said. 

You can usually find Gaston at her appointment-based shop, The Barber Studio, 914 W. Washington St., Bloomington. 

But on Monday and Tuesday, she was cutting hair back-to-back-to-back on the second floor at Wood Hill Towers. The men also left with a free grooming kit that includes razors, shaving cream, deodorant, soap, and moisturizer. 

The Bloomington-Normal Achievement Foundation (BNAF) pitched the idea. 

“These men don’t have access to the transportation to leave the towers, to get these haircuts. Haircuts in this community are expensive, so we know we’re providing a much-needed service for these guys,” said Rick Lewis, a board member with the Bloomington-Normal Achievement Foundation. 

BNAF is the nonprofit offshoot of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. Its goal is to promote the health and well-being of local citizens, with a focus on youth and senior citizens. It’s about two years old, and Cuts for Christmas was its first big public event.

“(Creating BNAF) just makes it easier for us to work within the community and access the resources we need to provide much-needed services,” Lewis said. 

LaKeesha James-Smith, resident services coordinator at Wood Hill Towers, said Cuts for Christmas was a much-needed service for her residents. 

“When I was contacted by the Bloomington-Normal Achievement Foundation asking about opportunities to address the needs of our senior residents, I jumped for joy at their willingness to help us reduce social isolation for our residents,” James-Smith said. 

That was on full display Tuesday afternoon, as four older men waited for their haircut. When one customer finished up his cut, he stuck around after — in no hurry to leave. 

“We’re creating this barbershop experience for these guys,” Lewis said. “We know that that barbershop was the hub of the community growing up for a lot of these men – where guys would come together and socialize and get a chance to meet with their friends, talk politics, talk athletics, talk about what’s going on in the community. And they miss that.”

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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