How local barber Aleks provides youth with inspiration and much more than a haircut

Every week, local barber Aleks Salao shows up at Covenant House Toronto with his clippers and sets up in our shelter in a space equipped with a barber chair and mirror. We talked to him about how this one chair barber shop helps youth build confidence to look and feel their best.

Q: What is your connection with Covenant House?

A: I used to work at Covenant House – first as a youth worker in the shelter and then moved on to an opportunity as an employment counselor, where I helped youth search for jobs, prepare for interviews and learn about life in the workplace. Since leaving that position three years ago to pursue my dream of opening my own barber studio - an idea inspired by the youth who encouraged me to open a place that caters to those who feel vulnerable or self-conscious in public settings. I’ve been coming back to Covenant House every two weeks to cut hair and help them to feel good about themselves as they’re going through so much and working hard on moving forward.

Q: What sparked the idea to set up a barber chair and start cutting hair for the youth?

A: I started cutting hair when I was a youth worker. It was part of a life skills workshop that taught me how looking neat and clean makes you feel better about yourself and boosts your confidence. While doing that, the youth shared how intimidating it can be for them to walk into a barber shop, for example as a trans youth or someone who is concerned that people can tell they’re experiencing homelessness. Some have told me how nerve-wracking the experience can be for them, so they just avoid going altogether. That feedback gave me the idea to set up a chair and provide a barber experience that is warm, welcoming, fun and provides a sense of community for all the youth at Covenant House.

Q: Describe the atmosphere and experience, is it like a regular barber shop?

A: I try to create a warm, welcoming and fun environment where the youth feel comfortable and can relax for a while. I play music that the youth are into, strike up conversations and try to create a sense of community. It’s more than a haircut, it’s about creating a positive experience for the youth. When it’s busy, there is a lot of chatter, and everyone is enjoying themselves. The sense of community is what barber shops are all about.

Q: What impact does this service have on the youth?

A: As soon as the youth get out of that chair, they feel empowered and ready to take on any challenge they’re facing. I also notice that a lot of youth who don’t normally hang out or talk to each other make a connection while waiting their turn or are just hanging out at the barber shop.

Q: Can you tell us about any meaningful connections you’ve had in the barber shop?

A: One that stands out is the connection I made with a youth who had never had a haircut in their life – this was on my first day cutting hair at the shelter. The youth was sixteen years old and when I asked why they never had a haircut before, they said that they couldn’t ever afford one. The fact that I was able to give that young person their very first haircut was a meaningful experience for both of us.

Q: What’s next for the barber’s chair?

A: I’d really like to expand the service because the demand keeps on growing as more youth find out about it. Some of the youth have expressed interest in learning how to cut hair, so I have discussed the possibility of offering a program that teaches barbering to the youth, something like the Cooking for Life program which not only teaches a skill, but it also helps youth find employment in the field.