A classic blue, red, and white striped light welcomes visitors as they walk in to Master Barbers. On the walls are posters filled with different hair cuts and shaves that men can pick from by number. Mannequin heads with smooth, shiny hair are on a table; some are cut while some are colored. Black leather barber chairs line the other side of the room and sit in front of mirrors. The room is bright but it is quiet, that is until the break is over and students from the Master Barber class at SUNY Bronx Educational Opportunity Center (EOC) come in.
The purpose of the Bronx EOC is to offer additional education or training to adults who are economically disadvantaged. Vocational and academic programs are geared towards helping students find meaningful employment. The Bronx program is sponsored by Bronx Community College (CUNY) and what really makes the EOC special is that all the training and classes are tuition free. These factors make it possible for underserved and those who are struggling socioeconomically obtain an education or trade without going into debt through the traditional college route. This can make all the difference for someone who had a difficult past or are trying to turn their life around.
Edwin Velez, Instructor for Master Barbers, guides students to either practicing on mannequins or pairing them up with walk-ins. The haircuts are free for adults and children. Many of their clients are homeless or unable to afford a haircut. Seeing a flyer for the Master Barbers haircuts at The Vet Center, Sergeant Gonzalo Duran decided to assess the program so that he can see if it was acceptable to recommend to fellow Veterans. Today, Gilberto Sanchez, age 42, is giving a cut and shave to Sergeant Duran.
Sanchez started cutting hair at the age of 13, enjoying it as a hobby. He was first inspired by watching the local barbers do it while making an honest living. The son of a single mother and living with four sisters, he described his household as dysfunctional due to his mother’s alcohol addiction. Sanchez father passed away when he was four and the allure of the streets came from trying to find what was lost. “I took to the streets because it was the missing love I never got from a father figure and thought it was real love.” he said, continuing, “While I tried to stay out of trouble, I was still fighting the demons of committing crime.”
When Sanchez’s father passed, the family was left with a house and a store, where they all worked at. One night, while helping out his mother and sister, the store was robbed. Sanchez knew the suspect from the neighborhood and heard from others that he was glorifying his crime on the street. “I felt extremely overprotective of my Mom and sister at that point. That is what made me buy a gun the next day.” explained Sanchez. The very next day he went out and shot the suspect, killing him, but stayed at the crime scene and turned himself into police custody.
At the age of 17 Sanchez was on trial for homicide, “I think back and think that maybe if he never glorified robbing my family, maybe with years passing I would have forgave him. But him bragging…I felt hopeless. I realize now that I am older, that the choices I was making as a child was me thinking that I was an adult.” Being sentenced to 25 years to life, he stayed out of gangs and found religion in prison. He learned techniques from other barbers there and, while passionate about cutting hair, he used it as a way to waste time since he believed he would never get out of jail. Despite being rejected for parole by the parole board many times, Sanchez spent 18 years in prison after having his sentence reduced for good behavior and finally being released.
Released in 2011, he started working in barber shops and observed that the owners were making money through renting out chairs. Currently, he is in the process of getting a Master Barber License and hopes to head a barber program at Bronx prisons. Taking for granted the depth of sharing one’s story, Sanchez provided me with a great reminder, “I normally don’t disclose my past but I felt that here, I had too. Everyone has a perception of those who are incarcerated but I want to show them that they can change.”
Interested in registering at SUNY Bronx Educational Opportunity Center? Check out the requirements here or register in person every Monday and Wednesday from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. at 1666 Bathgate Avenue Bronx, NY 10457.