‘I hadn’t felt pretty for so long’: Roland’s gift of kindness

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When her work as an office cleaner reduced dramatically as people cut back on the commute post-pandemic, single mother Maree made some pragmatic decisions.

“I have been cutting and colouring my own hair for over two years. I could never justify spending money on myself: my girls are my priority,” says the Port Melbourne woman, whose daughters are aged five and three.

Two months ago, things changed for the better, when she walked past the Bay Street hairdressing salon owned by Roland Semaarn.

Roland Semaarn has been giving away free hair cuts “no questions asked” at his salons since 1996.Credit: Darrian Traynor

“I saw a sign in the window, he offered [a] free wash and hair cut on a Sunday for those who couldn’t afford it. Roland saw me reading the sign and came outside and asked me if I would like a free haircut,” she says. “He was so nice and warm and welcoming.

“I have never been to a fancy salon before.”

Maree took up Semaarn’s offer. His son, Ellias, “gave me the most amazing hair wash I had ever had, and the haircut was beautiful”.

While Roland was cutting Maree’s hair, he sent Ellias to Coles, and when she was leaving, the pair handed over a bag of groceries. “I was so overwhelmed I started to cry,” she says. She offered to clean the salon in return, but Semaarn said that would not be necessary.

“I walked out of that salon feeling beautiful, I hadn’t felt pretty for so long,” says Maree. “I really appreciate what he is doing.”

The difference you can make to someone by giving your skills with scissors, comb and water to change their hair was brought home to Semaarn when he was 24, by an older business partner who showed him what a bit of sharing could do for a local community.

In the type of gesture that became more common during the “kindness pandemic” but has slowed anecdotally, Semaarn began giving away his time to do washes, cuts and dries, “no questions asked”, in 1996.

Roland Semaarn dries the hair of Maree, a single mother of two young girls who had not had a professional haircut for two years and says she left his salon “feeling beautiful”.Credit: Jason South

“As the years went by … I really understood the power it has when you see people come in with their heads down and shoulders slumped, and then leave on their tiptoes – that’s a powerful thing that us hairdressers can do,” he says.

“People are cutting back on a lot of things — going out, food and personal grooming — but that is one of those things that I don’t think people should cut back on because a haircut is not a luxury.

“If you start letting things like that go, you can spiral into a depressed state of mind.”

As volunteering numbers nationally remain lower than they did pre-COVID, and cost-of-living pressures mean many people face more difficulty covering regular expenses, hairdressers, in particular, are making large donations of time.

‘Hairdressers are very community-based people. I think you will find hundreds of thousands of stories like this.’

“Hairdressers are very community-based people, and not to take anything away from Roland, but I think you will find hundreds of thousands of stories like this,” says Sandy Chong, chief executive of the Australian Hairdressing Council.

“If you ask any hairdresser why they become a hairdresser, they say, ‘I like to make people feel good about themselves, and look good’, they’re a lot more caring and emotionally based than ‘show me the money’,” she said.

“I also think we’re less judgmental than some other businesses with the people who walk in our door.”

Chong lists the not-for-profits Hair Aid – for which hairdressers volunteer in 87 communities around Australia cutting for those in need, and also pay their own way to developing countries to teach locals how to start hair-cutting microbusinesses – and Short Back & Sidewalks, a national volunteer network of hairdressers who give their time through community services, as two examples of big-heartedness among those who care for our hair.

Craig Hollywood, the civil engineer who founded Short Back & Sidewalks, said his group’s volunteers do 8000 free haircuts a year, and view a haircut as “a human need”. It has just received federal funding to expand services from capital cities to some regions.

“When you look good, you feel good. It can enhance your mental health and outlook, your connection to community as a result of that,” he said.

“For a lot of people in the current economic situation and that of the last couple of years, haircuts and grooming unfortunately take less of a priority.”

He believes the human contact given by hairdressers donating their time is also extremely valuable. “Hairdressers are the accidental counsellors of society: we literally put our heads in their hands, and tell them some of our deepest thoughts and feelings. That’s something that can’t be overlooked.”

As National Volunteer Week kicked off on Monday, Mark Pearce, chief executive of Volunteering Australia, says while the number of those giving time through organisations is still only at 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, more people are doing things independently, like Roland Semaarn.

“People are seeing they can do stuff themselves, maybe as a function of COVID, where people really had to focus on their immediate neighbourhoods and communities, and that’s a positive thing,” Pearce said.

Semaarn says since he moved from the more commuter-heavy strip of Clarendon Street, South Melbourne, to the population hub of Port Melbourne, he has been amazed at the outpouring of warmth attracted by his gesture.

Not that he does it for the free hugs – which he does sometimes get from passers-by.

“I see it as very simple: help people,” he says. “We’re not here to buy Lamborghinis and live in mansions, we’re to help each other and offer support. If everyone does a little bit, imagine how beautiful the world would be.”

Those wanting a free hairdo at Semaarn’s salon should book ahead.

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