Social media has been agog this week with video footage of a homeless Spanish guy who was given a make-over by an upmarket salon in Palma celebrating its third anniversary in business. They transformed him from scraggy, grey-haired, bearded tramp to hippy hipster, and no doubt changed his life for the good.
José Antonio has been homeless and living on the street for the last 25 years or so. He earns a few bob as an unlicenced parking attendant. Last week, his make-over went viral. He cried when he saw the transformation. I cried when I saw it, too.
More than a few lifetimes ago, my then boss advised me to invest in my hair, nails, and glasses as these are accessories I wear every day. I took this advice to heart and pay over the odds for my hair and glasses, preferring to cut my budget in other areas to compensate for these extravagances. I have that option. For many though, particularly those who are jobless, homeless, and fighting to keep their families together, haircuts and manicures are an unaffordable luxury. And yet, if they want to have any hope of getting a job that will lift them out of the cycle of poverty in which they are spinning, they need to look the part. Salons, like the one in Palma, are fleeting ministrations to an all-too permanent need.
Ten years ago, Magdolna Rózsa was working in a posh beauty salon in Brussels opposite the European Parliament, styling the rich and famous. Today, she’s a social worker in Budapest’s XIVth district ministering to the not-so-rich and even less famous. She’s still cutting hair, doing nails, and giving make-overs, but she’s doing it at no cost to her clients, many of whom are jobless, homeless, and looking for a way to get back on track.
So, what’s new, you say. MASNI (Munkaerő-piaci Aktivizálást Segítő Nőbarát Iroda) has been doing this in the VIIth district for ages. There, social workers work alongside hairstylists, manicurists, and beauticians to prepare women for work. Magdolna … she does it all.
A qualified hairstylist, beautician, and nail technician, she also holds a Bachelor’s in Social Work and is currently studying for her Master’s. Her clients don’t just go to her for a chat and a make-over. They bring their issues, their problems, their needs. And she’s eminently qualified to dish up help and advice while putting the finishing touches to that French polish or dying those roots.
Since inception, in January 2017, Tükörkép Műhely, a project proposed and sponsored by the district’s Deputy Mayor, Rebeka Szabó, has seen about 150 clients: men, women, and children alike. Employed full time by the Zuglói Családsegítő Központ (Family Care Center), Magdolna opens shop in small, two-room salon funded by the Önkormányzat (Mayor’s Office), located at Erzsébet Királyné útca 89 for two days each week. Unlike a traditional beauty salon or barber shop, often portrayed as gossip centres and meeting points, Magdolna sees just one client at a time. Her clients are sent to her by way of a voucher from the Family Services Centre entitling them to an SOS makeover (hair and make-up as preparation for a job interview) or the full works (hair, face, and nails) as a mental health need we all have, that emotional fix for when life gets too much to handle without help.
For the other three days, Magdolna works purely as a social worker. Her goal, though, is to work the social salon full-time. She wants to set up a Foundation to make it happen, to offer these services, free of charge, to people in need from all over the city, not just from Zugló. She wants more beauticians and stylists to get the basic qualification required to work in social work so that this particular blend of skills can be put to good use. [And she’s in need of a pro bono book-keeper.]
During the conversations she’s had with her clients, Magdolna has seen other needs emerge. A clean shirt. A smart jacket. A pair of decent shoes. Even a bus ticket to get to the job interview. Some clients are hungry for nutritious as well as cosmetic sustenance. They have kids who haven’t had a new toy in years. They’re in temporary housing hoping against hope to get a job that will right their world. Magdolna does what she can.
Crammed into her two-roomed salon are clothes, shoes, and toys, all donated for her clients. They can come here, find an outfit, get a new look, and leave with hope in their hearts and a spring in their step.
A single mother of two, Magdolna has first-hand experience of how life can knock you over. Her 10-year-old son celebrates two birthdays. One is the day he was born, the other the day he was reborn. Three years ago, he had a bone-marrow transplant and is currently symptom free. Yet it will take another two years for doctors to certify that the Leukemia has left his body for good. What spare time she has when not looking after her kids, working full-time, and attending university for two days every other weekend, Magdolna donates to homeless shelters and other temporary homes. She regularly organises job-seeker events with the district, preparing her clients mentally and physically for meetings with potential employers at mini job-fairs.
Hair dye, hair products, nail polish and creams don’t come cheap. Magdolna works with local suppliers and distributors, often translating product information from English to Hungarian taking payment in product. Recently, the charity arm of the Irish Hungarian Business Circle, in recognition of what she is accomplishing, has offered to help out. Members will soon go to redecorate the salon, and kit it out with shelves, mirrors, and wardrobes. Check the IHBC Facebook page for details.
This is how we change the world: one small project at a time.
First published in the Budapest Times 7 April 2017