BATON ROUGE – O’Neil Curtis has had a passion for giving back since he was in high school.
Now, on the first Monday of every month, Curtis and his team of hairstylists at O’Neil’s Barber and Beauty Salon are giving kids free haircuts if they read a book aloud.
“It feels good to help a 5-year-old kid and set them on the right path,” Curtis said.
Curtis ministers to children and promotes literacy through the Line4Line program, which he founded five years ago with Lucy Perera, who has worked with students and literacy programs at various locations in Baton Rouge.
“I didn’t feel like I could go to a barber shop with this idea, so I just waited. And then I was introduced to someone who knew O’Neil through some of the students I had worked with on the neighborhood art project,” Perera said.
In addition to haircuts for reading, Line4Line has expanded to include various mentoring programs such as its own basketball team.
“I really wanted to find something that my team enjoys making, so it’s organic and doesn’t force anyone to help,” Curtis said. “Some of my hairstylists like being coaches, so we thought about putting together a small basketball team.”
The approach to reading at the hair salon is different than at school, which Perera believes is what makes Curtis’ program and influence so powerful.
“That’s why the program is so successful. The program depends on these guys,” Perera said.
“The kids come in there and they look up to these guys. These barbers are young, maybe their dad’s age, and they have tattoos, you know, they’re cool. So if you suddenly put a kid in front of someone they’re looking up at and the barber says, ‘Here’s a book. Read it.’ It changes the narrative.”
Curtis has worked with Baton Rouge children affected by issues such as violence and drugs and has seen that illiteracy can affect entire families. He told the story of a father who expressed his gratitude for the program while raising his four children alone.
“He said, ‘I want to thank you for the program. What you are doing is really necessary because my wife has been in prison since the kids were little, so I did everything on my own. These kids come home with homework and I can barely read,'” Curtis said.
Curtis worked with other nonprofits in the area to connect the family with tutors and expand the program’s mentorship in the community.
He hopes Line4Line will inspire other barber shops to follow their example and become more involved in their communities.
If you would like to donate or volunteer to Line4Line, you can visit their website here.