Barber Elliot Riley from The Grooming Lounge has been providing clients with haircuts, trims and styles for 15 years. For the past two months, he has provided those services free to students at Reedy Creek Elementary in his spare time.
"Kids need haircuts, too. Not all children have access and it can affect their self-esteem," said Riley. "As adults, we like to schedule our haircuts, manicures, pedicures and other personal grooming services so we can feel our best. Children are no different."
Riley said the impact he makes with a pair of clippers is like no other.
"I had one student tell me this was the best haircut he'd ever had, even before looking in the mirror," he said. "When he did see himself, his joy and excitement brought a smile to my face."
Haircuts help Riley build genuine connections with students.
"There is a student who has this great big imagination," he said. "In his story, he is part of a traveling band that helps kids. We go back and forth, as he is telling more. We're laughing and having a good time. He doesn't realize our conversation shows me where his strengths lie."
Most would never know Riley had been a shy child.
"My profession has made me stretch my comfort zone because I interact with people daily. I had to come out of my shell," he said. "I encourage students to stretch their limits, too. I tell them to work hard and follow their passion."
Riley knows about following a passion. He made a drastic change while attending ECPI University. He unenrolled from his network security studies to enroll in a barber styling academy. He has never regretted his decision.
Riley has many high school clients. While they are sitting in his chair, he talks to them about their goals and aspirations.
"When they come to my shop, I ask them what they want to do in the future," he said. "Sometimes they know and other times they don't. I take the opportunity to talk to them about what they like and what options might be available, including barber school. It's a trade they'll have forever, even if they decide to do something else."
Reedy Creek is not the first CMS elementary school where Riley has donated haircuts to students. Over the years, he has served at Thomasboro Academy and Walter G. Byers. He has added Mountain Island Lake Academy to his list.
Riley said Cache Gray-Weeks, a barber he works with at his shop, has been a tremendous help with this mission.
"Right now it's only the two of us. I hope to expand to more schools, and we'll need more barbers," said Riley. "It seems small but I've seen kids who get out of the barber chair and stand up a little taller, feel more motivated and try a little harder because they feel seen and heard. This isn't about vanity, but about lifting kids up. Why not be a part of that?"