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The reluctant hairdresser

When I was fifteen, I went to beauty school because I figured that I could put myself through college by doing hair. At that time though, I didn’t want to be a hairdresser. I saw how hard my mother worked and how tired she was at night, and besides, I had decided then that my calling was in music. I took piano lessons since I was five and although my mother wanted me to take ballet, too, that only lasted a day--I was too big, couldn’t balance myself on one leg, and couldn’t fit into a tutu. But I loved music and stuck with it. In high school, I played the piano, organ, guitar and trumpet. I liked singing, too, and thought I was good at it, so I enrolled at John Brown College in Arkansas as a vocal performance major. But when I got there and sang along with other students, I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t cut out for it. I developed nodules on my vocal chords; when I sang Italian opera, I sounded like James Brown singing Italian opera. So I tried my hand at becoming a band director, but after many embarrassing moments in class, it was clear that I couldn’t keep a beat well enough to lead a band.

So I returned to Michigan and worked in my mother’s salon. I got married when I was young and stupid and had two beautiful boys, Noah and Zachary. My husband and I were both young and stupid, and we soon got restless and bored with each other. I remember crying in my mother’s living room at 26, and asking her what was wrong with me. I had everything a woman was supposed to want—a husband, children, a good job, a nice house and car, but I was miserable. I guess it’s no surprise that I was soon a single mom.

Turning point

One day, one of the salon customers talked about the medium-security prison opening up in the area. I had wondered what it would be like to work someplace where there were actually health insurance and benefits, and this customer told me that the prison was offering both. So I applied for a job and planned to do hair on the side. Since I hadn’t finished my bachelor’s degree, the only position I qualified for was prison guard. How bad could it be, I thought... Turned out it was pretty bad.

It wasn’t long until I quit the prison and on the day I left an inmate said  “Good luck, Miss Debbie, you’re going to have a good life now.”

The good life. What did that mean to me? I liked traveling, but I’d quickly lose interest with the tourist destinations my friends talked me into and would wind up spending time in areas the tourists shunned. When I went to Jamaica, I was bored with jets skis and drinking margaritas on the beach of a walled-off hotel, so I grabbed a bus into town. I wound up meeting a twenty-year old mother with five kids who invited me to her home where we ate soup made with not much more than fish bones. I spent the week visiting her, bringing diapers and groceries—and that’s where I felt content.

That was when I started doing what I like to call “ vacation with a purpose.”

Beyond labels

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been called “Crazy Deb”. It was Crazy Deb with the weird hairstyles, long nails and all that movie-star makeup; Crazy Deb with the boat and the all-night parties; Crazy Deb who worked in the prison and was even friends with some of the inmates. You’d hear, “I’m getting my hair cut next week—you know, by Crazy Deb.” I soon became Crazy Deb, the one who traveled around the world to work on humanitarian projects. My first time in India, I traveled from village to village with a friend helping people put in new wells that could sustain them through a drought as their old wells had dried up.

When I finally left for Afghanistan in May 2002, I had no idea that I’d still be there in a couple of years doing spiral perms and introducing the art of foiling. I had taken emergency and disaster relief training two months before 9-11 with a nonprofit organization called the Care For All Foundation and had pleaded for a place on the first team that the organization sent to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. When we arrived in the country, it was worse than I could have imagined. Everything seemed broken - buildings, roads, homes, families and individuals.

Thus began the most unlikely story of a lost hairdresser in Kabul, who helped build a beauty school for women and a life of her own amidst the rubble. It wasn’t a perfect life, but it was a life I loved nonetheless, in a salon where all women were welcome, regardless of hairstyle, color or baggage. The rest isn’t just history, better yet, it’s theirs and my story.


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