'We try to tell them wrong from right'

Englewood barber offers free haircuts, safe haven for CPS students

September 04, 2013|By Ashlee Rezin | For RedEye

Too few businesses in Englewood give back to the embattled and poverty-stricken neighborhood, according to Sunni Powell, owner of Powell's Barber Shop.

To kick off the start of the new school year, Powell and seven barbers from his shop at 1139 W. 63rd St. donated their time to provide free back-to-school haircuts to youths in the South Side community.

Powell said giving the free haircuts, offered Aug. 27 and 28 and Sept. 3 and the rest of today, is an effort to “encourage kids to go to school and stay in school.” The first day of class for the Chicago Public Schools' 2013-2014 academic year was Aug. 26.

“A haircut can make you feel like a million bucks,” said Powell, 42, who was born and raised in Englewood. “That first week of school can be tough for a lot of kids, and it’s a very simple thing, but if you look good, you get a boost of confidence, and you feel good and might perform better in school."

He added that more than half of the 40 vouchers he passed out for the event were redeemed during the first week, and he estimated that more than 60 kids would likely have their hair cut for free by the end of Wednesday because most of the barbers would cut students’ hair regardless if they submitted a coupon.

The haircuts could range from basic fades or low-cuts to mohawks, and would regularly cost up to $10.

“Haircuts, to me, can give someone more self-esteem and gives them a chance to go out and impress somebody,” said Al Ponder, 39, a barber at Powell’s Barber Shop and lifelong resident of Englewood. “It feels great giving children the chance to feel good about themselves.”

Ponder, who has worked at Powell’s since shortly after the shop opened its doors three years ago, has preformed seven free haircuts this year. He also participated in the inaugural haircut event last year, during which more than 50 school-age kids got free haircuts.

He said barbers often double as baby-sitters and therapists, and Powell’s Barber Shop represents a positive, safe haven for local residents.

“There’s troubled kids around here, and we try to serve as mentors,” Ponder said. “We don’t just make them look good, we try to tell them wrong from right.”

Powell’s Barber Shop, which touts itself as “the heart of Englewood,” can be found in the center of one of Chicago’s most notoriously dangerous neighborhoods.

In the past 90 days, Englewood’s police beat 0712, in which Powell’s is located, fell in at third place for violent crimes in the city, reaching 69 incidents as of Sept. 3, according to the Chicago Police Department. The beat also ranked sixth for aggravated assault and 22nd for burglaries, out of 279 police beats in the city.

From 2007 to 2011, more than 44 percent of Englewood’s roughly 30,600 residents were living below the poverty line, according to data from the city of Chicago. During that same time period, the city reports the per-capita income for the neighborhood was less than $13,000 annually.

Meanwhile, Powell’s Barber Shop allows clients to play video games (there is an Xbox and an Xbox 360 complete with video games available for use) and encourages parents to drop their children off for a haircut.

Marlon Taylor, 42, who brought his two sons, ages 8 and 14, for haircuts on Tuesday, said he feels safe leaving his children at the barber shop to get their hair done.

“This is a good place for Englewood and represents positivity for our community,” he said, adding he grew up not far from the barber shop.

Although he didn’t have vouchers for free haircuts, Taylor said he brings his children to Powell’s regularly and called the barber shop a “neighborhood anchor.”

“If you go to school and you feel good, you’ll do good,” he said, sitting in the empty barber chair next to his oldest son, Jalen, a student at Johnson College Prep High School. “Plus, they’re going to look real fly when they’re done.”

Powell, who earlier this year targeted local youth for a job fair in his barber shop, called haircuts a “creative gift that’s easy to give back to the community.”

“We need more businesses in Englewood that really care about the neighborhood,” he said. “I’m a product of Englewood, and it doesn’t hurt me at all to invest in my community.”

Ashlee Rezin is a RedEye special contributor.

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