Haircuts, Mentoring and Counseling...in a Bus
By Mike Tobias , Senior Producer, Nebraska Public Media
Jan. 19, 2024, 5 a.m. ·
It started a few years ago when Lawrence Chatters moved to Lincoln. The UNL athletics administrator with a doctorate in counseling psychology was looking for a barbershop and found Oasis, owned by K.B. Mensah. They became friends, bonding over music, DJ’ing and MC’ing weddings. They started talking about helping kids and started a non-profit called Visionary Youth.
Then the barber and the counselor had an idea.
“What about bringing the mentoring and barbering and also counseling into this mobile component, and taking that around and being able to serve people where they are?” Chatters recalls. “Because there are no mobile counseling spots.”
A barbershop in a bus. They stripped the insides out of a 36-foot party bus, installed four chairs, lights, towel warmers and other things barbers need. Even a barber pole. All in compliance with state regulations for normal barbershops. It’s tight, but enough room for four barbers and four kids.
“We had to be innovative to think of where to put other stuff in because we had smaller confines and we didn't have that much room, so we had to really think about storage and all those little details that you wouldn't think about that goes on in a small mobile rather than a big barber shop,” Mensah says.
It’s called MIND Mobile, as in Mentoring in New Dimensions. Here’s how it works. Mensah drives the bus to a location; when we visited last spring it was Lincoln’s Malone Community Center, a partner in the project. Four nine to 13-year-old boys leave their afterschool program and board the parked bus. They’re kids who for different reasons need a little extra help or support in their lives. The first 45 minutes is a cut and conversation with barbers who work at Oasis but volunteer for this program.
Barbers are paired with the same kid each week. Armed with trimmers, training in mentoring and a plan.
“We prep our barbers before they go in to work with the young people, and they know what subject they'll be talking about that day,” Chatters says. “Then they're using the curriculum that we created to ask questions and guide them along this journey of development as they go through the 10-week process.”
“I mean, asking them just normal questions that you would ask in a barbershop, but in a formal type of way,” Mensah adds. “Everything that a barbershop would normally have, we got in here and then we got great barbers and great conversations.”
Based on the plan for the day, we saw barbers talking with kids about things like favorite sports, reading in front of a class and grades.
The barbers say they talk with kids about a lot of different things on the bus.
“Just about life and how they’re doing in school and how could we help them on a better day to make them happier,” says Derrick Hull.
“Hobbies, activities, things they like to do, stuff like that,” says Zach Wenz. “Each week it’s just a different objective.”
“Also about any goals that they have, helping them open their mind to see different perspectives and to take on new challenges for themselves,” adds Makayah Worthon.
Barbers leave and counselor Lawrence Gardiner joins the kids on the bus for the remaining 45 minutes.
“I provide the mental health element to the mentorship, where I just provide the psychoeducation and make sure it goes in a direction where kids are developing different social skills, coping skills, communication skills,” Gardiner says. “So even when they're talking to the barbers or making sure that those interactions include a piece geared to learning and mentoring, and I get to supervise it at the end, just to make sure it's therapeutic.”
“I get to see if memory issues, recall issues, it helps me identify some things that the kids might need to work on just by watching their relationships with the barber,” he adds.
Youth mentoring programs aren’t unusual. Same with mobile barbershops. Chatters and Mensah say the combination is unique.
“I have not seen mobile barbershops where mentoring is also provided and counseling in the same space. That's the uniqueness I think of this project,” Chatters says. “What really makes this stand out is that the space where it happens is a very therapeutic, intentional intervention space. It was specially crafted for the purpose of providing haircuts, providing mentoring and providing counseling.”
“What's so unique, I think, about a barber and a client relationship is that I want you to think about how many people in your life, besides your significant other, actually put their hands on you,” Mensah says. “Especially when you come in looking rough or feeling rough, and that person can actually utilize their hands and mold you like clay, so to speak, and make you feel better and look better. So, there's a certain amount of rapport that's built in that interaction.”
“We're natural therapists,” Worthon adds. “Sometimes we're their first contact after school, after work, after a tough time and they just need somebody to talk to them.”
It’s counseling in a space that doesn’t look like counseling. MIND Mobile launched last spring and served 24 boys in 2023. From the beginning they’ve viewed this as kind of an experiment, gathering before and after information throughout the year. Mensah says they found:
- A positive impact on the self-efficacy and decision-making capabilities at critical developmental stages, with youth feeling they can manage to solve difficult problems if they try hard enough and recognize things they've done in the past will help them in the future.
- Increases in academic self-efficacy, with more youth feeling competent in learning regardless of subject.
- Increases in access to social capital and positive role models, and youth feeling they can arrange the help of friends, family, or other adults when they need help with something, and talk with their mentor and among their peer group about how to solve problems and reach goals.
- Sharp increases in the number of young people who report they have a strong sense of belonging to their own ethnic group and they often do things to help them better understand their ethnic background.
There’s now a waiting list of schools and agencies wanting to bring the program to their space. Chatters says it’s a good 90 minutes a week most young people never get, especially often underserved young males of color.
“There's so many challenges that these young people face that we don't know anything about,” Chatters says. “What we wanted to do is just create a space for them to feel better. When we see those kids come out of the Malone Center and run to the bus, that's enough for me. I just wanted them to find a place where they could go and just be happy for maybe an hour of their day. Maybe they struggled in school that day. Maybe there's something going on at home that's tough. But if they run to that bus, that just shows me that it's something special for them.”
“The big picture is that we could create a curriculum, a project that can be duplicated across the United States,” he adds.
All created by two friends who figured out you can get a lot done in a barber chair.
Watch our story about the MIND Mobile, from Nebraska Public Media's "What If..." series.