Salon owner helps lift women out of poverty

She went to for a chance to combine her love of travel and hairstyling, but Sherwood Park’s Alannah Zilkowsky gained so much more out of her first Hair Aid experience.

Zilkowsky, owner of Paper Rock Hair in Sherwood Park, recently traveled to Manila in the Philippines to teach women at a government-sponsored drug rehabilitation centre how to cut hair.

In the aim to teach 200 women in total, she was part of a contingent of 21 other hairdressers from all over the world; Australia, the U.S., Sweden, Germany. All were volunteering with Hair Aid, an Australia-based charity that trains women in basic haircutting skills and men in barbering so they can break the poverty cycle and support their families with an income.

Over the week-long trip, she helped nine women at the treatment centre learn five basic hair cuts; a straight line, an angled bob, a v-cut (aka Rachel’s cut from Friends), short older ladies’ cut, and long layered cut. Zilkowsky noted these skills transcend borders, language differences and empower these women with the confidence to take control of their lives.

“Just how excited they were to learn, that was memorable for me. One of the ladies who had never been in school before said, ‘Thank you for giving me the opportunity to learn a skill’. By the end last day when we were graduating the ladies, we were blubbering messes. They drew up this card of the cartoon Garfield, where he was a barber with shears, and they wrote us all of these personal notes thanking us for teaching them. How appreciative they were and how dedicated they were really struck me. They were really motivated,” Zilkowsky recalled.

The eruption of the Taal Volcano on Jan. 12 threw a curveball into the mix as it dramatically impacted air quality. That forced the trainers to hunker down at one of the sites that had proper ventilation for one day, instead of spreading across the seven sites as planned. That also condensed the program from five to four days.

The Sherwood Park salon owner noted these women had to work hard to pass the intensive program.

“Hairdressing is a two-year apprenticeship program in Canada, so they’re not proficient hairdressers when they graduate but by the end of the five days. They’ve cut at least 10 live models’ hair and are proficient in all five haircuts. They have to be able to actually do the haircuts to get their certificate. Hair Aid has been working in Manila for 10 years, they work with the government, so when they graduate from the program and they get their certificate that said they got the five-day training, that actually holds a lot of value in the hairdressing communities there. This actually helps people get jobs in tiny, little salons. Because the Hair Aid holds weight, we don’t just pass people through because we want to be nice, it’s not just a participation ribbon, they need to be qualified.”

The personal stories behind the scissors and capes will be what Zilkowsky will remember.

“There were a couple of rockstars that were naturally gifted. There was one lady who thanked me saying Ma’am Alamma thank you so much for teaching me, this was the first time I’ve ever learned anything. She thanked me for being patient with her. She showed me pictures of her six kids, one was in nursing school. She said this was the first skill I’ve ever had and my kids aren’t proud of me when I do drugs, so they’ll be proud of me doing hair, I hope. And here I am tearing up, but then I had people yelling across the room to go look at their hair.

“Just these women’s stories, the poverty there is on a different level than what it is here. We have homelessness here, but it’s nothing like it is there, so this really is giving them a lifeline to give them a skill. Even if it’s to cut your neighbour’s hair to trade for a bag of rice, that’s something they didn’t have available to them before,” she added.

Hair Aid celebrated its 10 year anniversary in 2020, which has produced 5,000 trainees in Manila.

“I would love to do it again. It was a really good experience. I can’t believe how amazing these women were. By the end of the first day, they did a straight line haircut on a live model and when I was in hair school, I think it was two weeks before we were allowed to do that to a mannequin head, and they rocked it. It was really cool to see the impact that the week of training had,” said Zilkowsky.