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Dignity Health old

Jade Jordan wanted to put a smile back on her mom's face.

After 34-year-old Jordan lost her job, she and her mother fell behind on payments. They were both evicted from their Newark, New Jersey, apartment, and had to take refuge in a temporary shelter.

"Day by day, I watched my mom's morale just kind of [fade]," Jordan told me by phone. "Every day she was saying, 'Man, my hair looks a mess, my hair looks terrible.'"


She knew she needed to do something to boost her mom's spirits while she looked for a new job. "I was thinking, you know what? It would be great if there was a program that existed that helps women out that are in shelters ... with beautifying themselves."

She was in luck: a Google search led Jordan to Jody Wood, visual artist and founder of Beauty in Transition.

Jody Wood with volunteer barber Jerry. Photo by Nicola Benizzi.

Wood believes that providing beauty services helps folks with more than just looking pretty.

And she's right. Roughly half a million people across the country are homeless. Without permanent housing, day-to-day life can be a challenge for anyone. Beauty, then, might seem like an afterthought. But appearances can play a critical role. Studies have shown that prospective employers put a lot of weight on personal grooming and attire.

That's why Wood created Beauty in Transition — a traveling salon that provides services like hair washes, cuts, and coloring for those living in homeless shelters.

Beauty in Transition trim. Photo by Nicola Benizzi.

Beauty in Transition got its start in the basement of the Lawrence Community Shelter in Lawrence, Kansas, in 2006. "I refurbished a room inside [the] shelter ... for the residents there," Wood told me in a phone interview. "It became much more than a salon — it was a place to hang out and get away from the rest of the crowd." She spent over six months there, documenting stories, cutting and dyeing hair.

She wanted to change the way homelessness was perceived, all while bringing together people from different backgrounds.

"People who are homeless and people who are hairstylists, they don't necessarily get an opportunity to come together very often," she says.

It might seem like a small thing, to cut or style someone's hair. But it can have a real impact.

In a video detailing the experience, one woman described how a haircut provided a sense of hope during a difficult time:

"It restored my self-esteem. It gave me a little more hope that I could get through this. ... Image is important. Not only my own self-image, but how I present myself to others ... how I want to be seen and how I want to see myself."


A project participant checking out her new 'do with stylist Abbie Klenzman. Photo by Nicola Benizzi.

The best part? Wood has been able to take Beauty in Transition on the road.

In 2013, the RedLine Contemporary Art Center invited Wood to bring the project to Denver. With the help of Aveda volunteer stylists and a truck donated by Denver bARTer collective, her mobile hair salon was born.

Since then, Wood has been on a roll. After her time in Denver, Wood received support from A Blade of Grass and the Brooklyn Arts Council to bring the project to New York.

With funding in place, Jody decided she needed the perfect vehicle.

"I found a guy selling his old Chevrolet Grumman Step Van in Long Island," she said. The 1975 Chevy was far from its final form, but a month of construction help from an old boss and volunteers from the local Home Depot prepared the salon for the streets.

Beauty in Transition mobile salon! Inside of the van before and after renovations. Photo by Nicola Benizzi.

Jody is quick to point out that it's not her role, but rather the interaction between the participants and volunteer stylists that really makes a difference.

One of those people is New York City stylist Jose Montanez.

"It has nothing to do with makeover; it's more about self-esteem, and I think that's the most important part," Montanez explained in a short film about the project. "It's 'yes,' you look at yourself in the mirror, but that's the beginning of it. The rest of it is how you feel all the time, and I think that's what we're really trying to instill in them here."

Volunteer stylist Jose Montanez. Photo by Nicola Benizzi.

Part of the magic, said Wood, is how unexpected the experience is.

"It's almost like a portal," she said. "You walk into the back of a truck and you're in this salon. So I think it's used to transport people outside of their everyday experience. Even though it's happening on ... a very small scale, it means a lot to people who are a part of it."

Beauty in Transition participants post-haircut. Photo by Nicola Benizzi.

It meant a lot to Jade Jordan, who was inspired by Wood's salon.

Jade, who has been corresponding with Wood, is now planning to create a pop-up version of the project at a salon in Newark for people like her mom. As she says, "If you get too serious or get too downtrodden, then it can change your life for the worse. But if you find things to be happy about, to laugh about, to smile about, you can face life and its challenges a little brighter."

Already, Beauty in Transition has helped hundreds of people, and there are plans to take the project to even more locations.

With the help of the New York Council for the Humanities and the Esopus Foundation, Wood will be bringing a salon to an abandoned storefront in Kingston, New York, this January.

Watch a short video about the Beauty in Transition program:

This article originally appeared on 04.15.19


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