Kids abandoned on streets by poor parents



I’ve been teaching business entrepreneurship at universities for 14 years. Everything I tell my students about business, I’ve done – sometimes resulting in fantastic failures, other times wonderful successes.

My husband Mark [Tomasich, 56, a Queensland police officer] and I finally got around to having our first overseas holiday, to the Philippines, when we were in our mid-40s because we’d had our three kids young and we’d been too busy or didn’t have enough money to travel previously.

On the last night of our trip, we went into a pub in Manila that was televising a footy match Mark wanted to see, and these two women walked in and sat at the next table.

I struck up a conversation with the women and it turned out they were nuns living in Manila who’d snuck in to watch the footy.

One of them, Sister Kate, was an Australian and she said, “I work for an organisation that collects children left on the streets of Manila because their parents are too poor to feed them”.

Once they’d looked after the children’s physical needs, they reunited them with their parents, who were usually living in a slum, and then tried to teach the parents a skill they could turn into a job.

The whole concept instantly resonated with me, but when I asked what skill they taught the parents, she said, “Oh, we’re no good at that part, but our dream is to one day start a sewing centre”.

In my 20s, before my university career, I’d taught myself to sew and had run my own curtain warehouse for 10 years, so straightaway I offered to help.

She told me later they never thought they’d hear from me again, but I went back to my students at the University of the Sunshine Coast and said, “I’m going to go do this. Come and help me, and learn some business skills.”

Eight months later Mark and I took three students, two seamstresses and a heap of donated machines to Manila and taught 17 people how to sew in two weeks.

The next year we took five uni kids and more seamstresses and taught 25 people. We also started English lessons.

I could see there was so much need and asked what other skill would be useful, and the locals said hair-cutting.

So I went home and put an ad in the paper calling for hairdressers to come with us on our next trip.

The demand for hair-cutting lessons just took off, so I called the project Hair Aid and registered it as a charity in about 2013.

Now I take teams of 30 hairdressers with me at a time. We do two trips a year to the Philippines and Cambodia, one a year to Indonesia, and next year we’ll do our first projects in Thailand and Vietnam. Training can be under a tree or on a basketball court, and in five days we’ve taught them five basic cuts.

With the donated hair-cutting kits we give them, they can go on to open their own business on the side of a road the next day and feed their children. To date, we’ve trained a total of 3728 people in hair.

Word about what we’re doing has spread through the industry, and as well as everyday salon hairdressers who volunteer their time and cover their expenses to come, top hairdressers such as Benni Tognini, Caterina Di Biase and Emiliano Vitale join in.

On our latest trip to Cambodia last month, [celebrity hairdresser and US reality TV star] Tabatha Coffey came, but the students really don’t care who’s teaching them – their only focus is learning a skill that will change their family’s lives.

We hold graduation ceremonies at the end of each trip, which tend to be quite emotional. One of the first women who graduated stood up and said, “Thank you for training us. Now my children will not die.” My whole team started bawling.

I started another offshoot – Hair Aid Community Cuts – three years ago, which gives free haircuts to people in need around Australia. We are in 40 communities, and every six weeks volunteer hairdressers go to those locations for two to three hours and give haircuts to people who can’t afford them due to various social issues. The demand is so great I could open another 30 tomorrow.

I quit my university career last month to focus on Hair Aid full-time because there’s so much to do. Hair Aid is not me, but if I stop doing Hair Aid, it would stop, so there was really no other decision to make.

Amanda Watt, The Courier-Mail, October 7, 2018 8:00am