My mom couldn’t afford to take her three boys to the barbershop, so she cut our hair herself. She did a terrible job. Finally, when I was 10 and she sat me down for my regular cut, I grabbed her wrist and asked, “Ma, can I cut my own hair?”
I wish I could say that I graduated from high school and went straight to barber school, but I took a few detours, including drug and alcohol addiction and four years of living on the street. I was still homeless when I heard I could get financial aid to attend barber college, so I enrolled. From there, I entered a residential treatment program for my addictions and began to think, deeply, about how I wanted to live my life. I realized I wanted to help people not just look better but also feel better from within.
In 2008, when I opened a shop in my old neighborhood, I started to hear about people I’d known who had passed away from preventable or treatable conditions. I started to share my own health struggles with my clients — for one thing, how I gradually lost 150 pounds and eliminated my need for high blood pressure medication.
I started a walking club. And I reached out to local hospitals to do monthly health screenings for anyone who comes by — they’re not just for clients. Though we’ve had to temporarily stop our screenings due to pandemic restrictions, we were able to offer COVID vaccinations earlier this year, and we continue to talk to clients about exercise, nutrition and taking care of themselves.
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I know firsthand how important screenings can be. In 2015, I attended a Cleveland Clinic health fair, and a routine urine test revealed traces of blood. I felt fine, but I followed up with my doctor and learned I had kidney cancer. Surgery saved my life.
I’m not an organized-religion guy, but I’m spiritual. I know I’m blessed to be here, and I want my clients and neighbors to be just as blessed.
— As told to Jennifer E. Mabry
Waverly Willis, 50, is the owner of Urban Kutz barbershops in Cleveland, an instructor at LaBarberia barber college and the founder of the Urban Barber Association.