Hairdressers herald hope for slum-living parents

In Selina’s words:

Who or what inspires me: Anyone that shows kindness and takes the time to do for others.

Best advice: Execute! So many people say they’ve always wanted to do something like this but when I hear that I think, what’s stopping you?

Last year Selina Tomasich met a woman in the slums of the Filipino capital of Manila. The woman was attending Selina’s free Hair Aid hairdressing training week, keen to learn the craft so she could earn money to feed her four starving children. She and her children lived in a street community, amid rotting fruit and animal carcasses in a squalid Manilan back alley.

The woman attended the first day of Hair Aid’s five-day training session, excited at the opportunity to learn. She bounded in the second day, soaking up the instruction. But, on the third day, she failed to show. Where had she been, Selina asked the woman on the fourth day? I’m so sorry, she said, her voice thick with desperation. My son died yesterday. What did I miss? How can I catch up? I can’t let my other children die too.

Today, that same woman runs a hairdressing salon in a lean-to on a shantytown sidewalk in Manila. The money she earns from hairdressing means her 13-year-old twin daughters no longer ply the streets at night working as prostitutes. She can feed the twins and their older brother. And all three children now go to school.

Hair Aid has helped thousands of families like this one to earn a new chance at life by teaching them the art of hairdressing, or sewing. How did Queensland academic Selina come to launch Hair Aid and dedicate so much of her life to those fighting to survive daily life amid the seaming back allies of Manila?

Two nuns walk into a bar…

In 2010 Selina and her husband Mark sauntered into a bar in Manila after a four-week backpacking adventure in the Philippines. They were looking to relax by watching a game of footy on a bar TV, and enjoying a beer. Instead, they met two nuns.

They got to talking. It turned out the nuns worked for an enterprise that supports starving children whose parents had abandoned them on the street in the desperate hope a charity organisation will rescue them, feed them, and keep them safe. These kids are on the brink of starvation – many of them are only hours away from drawing their final breath. The parents hope the charity will get to the kids first, before a sex trafficker or a criminal gang steals them away to live out short lives in Manila’s underbelly.

Shocked, Selina wanted to know more. But what happens to the kids after rescue? She learned that the nuns would take the children to a safe location, feed them, wash them, de-louse them and attempt to return them to their families. They would also try to teach the parents a livelihood so they could feed their children without resorting to crime and prostitution. What do you teach them, Selina asked? Nothing at the moment, the nuns replied. But we’d love to set up a sewing centre.

These kids are on the brink of starvation – many of them are only hours away from drawing their final breath.

Sincere thanks from desperate parents

It just so happened that Selina, a full-time academic at the University of Queensland, had once run a soft furnishing company and was a seamstress. Perhaps she could help? Eight months later she returned to Manila with her husband Mark, two other seamstresses, Diane O’Regan and Cheryl Abbott, and three volunteer university students. They spent the next 10 days teaching 17 parents how to sew.

Among the first students was Rosalinda. On the graduation day, Rosalinda stood in front of the crowd, clutching a piece of paper. Unlike her peers who’d spoken through a translator, Rosalinda had worked out how to say thank you to the volunteers in English. In a faltering voice, she said simply: “Thank you. Now my children will not die.”

Selina came to learn Rosalinda had already lost her husband and two children – one child to disease and one to flood waters. She was living with her remaining two children in a hole in the ground with a cardboard roof. Today, Rosalinda uses her sewing skills to make shorts, shirts and water bottle holders, and sell them in markets. Her children go to school. And they now live in a lean-to home – it’s not perfect but, when it rains, the water now runs off their home rather than into it.

Swamped by demand

Impressed by the enthusiasm and talent among their students, Selina and volunteers returned to Manila the next year. Again the sewing training was a success.

What else could they do to help, Selina asked? What about hairdressing, the nuns asked? A lot of the parents are keen to learn how to cut hair. “Now, I’m not a hairdresser, but I just say yes to everything really,” Selina says. “I got home and wrote small public relations piece in the local newspaper and a local hairdresser, Bernie, wrote a five-day training program for us.” The next year Selina, Mark, six university student volunteers and Diane, one of the original volunteer seamstresses, returned to Manila.

While the sewing classes typically attracted about 20 to 25 students, the first hairdressing class lured 80 students. The next year, 200 poverty-stricken parents crammed into a building eager to transform their lives through hairdressing. So great was the demand that Selina and her growing team of volunteers began returning to Manila twice a year to teach sewing, hairdressing and English.

Last June she took 24 volunteer hairdressers, who trained between 15 and 40 people in nine different locations, totalling more than 400 students. Of those they’ve taught over the years, more than 400 graduates have made a dedicated business out of hairdressing. Nine have earned hairdressing apprenticeships at existing salons, seven have started their own salons, and two have earned prizes in national hair competitions at glitzy award ceremonies a far cry from their homes in the slums.

200 poverty-stricken parents crammed into a building eager to transform their lives through hairdressing.

At work in the slums

Even today Selina is shocked by the state of the slums her students call home. “These areas have clogged up drains with dead rats, and rubbish and, in some circumstances, a dead child in the gutter because they can’t afford to bury them,” Selina says. “They are where children pick up scraps off the street to eat. Where dogs and chickens mingle as we train people how to cut hair. I’ve driven past slums in Calcutta and taught in the backblocks of Fiji, which are pretty bad, but Manilan slums take the cake – they are the rawest of the raw.”

Today, these very slums are where Selina and the Hair Aid volunteers work. Selina recognised there was no point hosting training in dedicated premises – if people couldn’t afford to feed their children they most certainly couldn’t afford transport. So she and her volunteers work in the heart of the slum communities.


So successful is the Hair Aid program that Selina plans to expand Hair Aid to Bali in September. Next year it will go to Thailand to work with a charity that supports 200 women rescued from the sex trade. Selina also plans to extend Hair Aid into Cambodia and Sri Lanka next year.

In the meantime, Hair Aid is also expanding in Australia. While it doesn’t teach hairdressing in Australia, it offers free haircuts to the homeless, victims of domestic violence and disadvantaged groups such as migrants and Indigenous people. “We go in, we cut people’s hair, and we leave,” Selina says. “Having that haircut can be life-changing for some people, people who haven’t been able to have a haircut for five or six years. We show them how they look in the mirror, and they love it, they are empowered, it keeps them going sometimes.”

Hair Aid will run 60 such Community Cuts across Australia next year.

What drives her?

But why? Why does Selina dedicate so much of her life to Hair Aid, while also working full-time as an academic at home. “I’ve got three kids, and four grandchildren,” she says. “And I couldn’t imagine being unable to feed them. I couldn’t imagine having to make that decision which one to leave in the street.”

Get involved …

You can find out more about Hair Air, sign up to volunteer, or donate funds by visiting its website at or visiting on Facebook.