Helping Others Cope After Disaster: A Hairdresser’s Journey – Stylist Spotlight


When the call came in, I didn’t recognize the number but knew who it was—an artist named Paul Petersen I’d just met an hour ago. He and his partner had a tent set up in Honokowai Beach Park to help the children of the displaced families cope with their feelings through art.

“You know, Sherry,” he said, “Aloha isn’t just a Hawaiian thing. It’s obvious to us that you have it and we’re very grateful to have you on the island.”

He went on to say that it had been six months since the devastating fires leveled Lahaina town. And that folks seemed to have moved into a new phase of recovery. Still grieving, of course, but out of shock. Still needing time to heal but beginning to sleep through the night. Able to think about where their long-term housing might possibly come from, and even to formulate plans to take care of their families over the long haul.

Then he gave me the precious information that I’d asked him for, that only a resident was able to provide: The name and number of a single mom who hadn’t received any assistance, and of a friend who could provide space for me to work.

“Do the good works,” he said, “and mahalo for your service.”

Only yesterday I’d landed on Maui and reunited with Jeannie, a dear friend I hadn’t seen in thirty-five years. She’d been a stylist in my salon back in the day, and we’d grown close. After circumstances arose that caused me to have to sell the salon, sadly, we had gone our separate ways and lost touch.

When the wildfires broke out in Lahaina, I was suddenly desperate to reach her. I’d waited anxiously for two weeks before word came that she was alive and safe. As we got reacquainted, Jeannie sent me firsthand pictures of the disaster she’d witnessed. One image was of the massive flames, taken from her backyard about a half a mile away. Shortly after that picture was taken, when the fire switched directions and spared her home, she’d set out on a one-woman mission to discover what the exact needs of the people were. That’s when she learned her church had burned down and that they were holding a service down on the beach.

Paradise on fire.  

Paradise on fire. 

“Everyone who attended, except two, had lost their homes,” she said on the phone. “Lots were children.”

She sent another picture of the relief effort, the true spirit of Aloha on full display as neighbors and friends formed a human chain on the beach and unloaded supplies from personal watercraft and small boats. Others in her community had been checking on each other and volunteering rides and such.

There are times when sympathy and donations just aren’t enough. “When the time is right,” I told her, “I’d like to come and help in any way I can. What do you need? Money? Supplies? And how can I get them to you?”

“I think the best thing you could do is come and work your hair magic,” she said. “Just not right now.”

We knew haircuts weren’t top of anyone’s mind at that moment, but six months later I booked my ticket and mailed a box to Jeannie with everything I would need for the task at hand.

A human chain of volunteers transfers supplies off of boats on the beach.  

A human chain of volunteers transfers supplies off of boats on the beach. 

On the flight, I struggled with self-doubt. Would I say or do the wrong thing to the wildfire survivors? I might not be able to fathom what they were going through, but I wanted to seek them out and do my best to help them feel better.

Like countless others, each time I visit the Hawaiian Islands, I fall in love all over again. The lush, green landscapes. The soothing sounds of the ocean. The warmth of the Polynesian people. All that and more that creates the intoxicating Aloha spirit that, for me, is palpable. It’s pure bliss that stays with me for a long time after I return.

Now was my chance to give back.

Jeannie had reached out to several of the big hotels in Kaanapali, where FEMA, the Red Cross, and other local organizations had set up large hubs. In operation for months, these were places where the refugees could get the donated items they needed for free.

But when she picked me up at the airport, I could tell she was troubled. She told me how the day before, when she’d gone to drop off our flyers and sign-up sheets, she’d had one rejection after another from the very hotels who just days before had been excited about my cutting hair there.

On our picturesque drive through the West Maui Mountains toward her house, I tried to convince her there was no need to worry, that together we would end up exactly where we were supposed to be. It was certainly my hope and belief.

Even before we neared the fire zone, I noticed charred trees and cars along the highway. When we reached the Lahaina Bypass, Jeannie slowed down so I could see a memorial beside the road in honor of the 101 lives lost in the miles-long inferno that had raged through Lahaina on August 8, 2023.

I felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest.

There were no words.

Jeannie and Sherry head to work via golf cart.  

Jeannie and Sherry head to work via golf cart. 

The next morning, armed with positivity and determination, we headed to Jeannie’s old neighborhood, where we took a grassroots approach, wandering around the community and speaking with her friends and neighbors. That’s when we met Paul. We introduced ourselves and I told him what was in my heart—that I’d just flown in from California, that I was a busy hairdresser with my own salon in San José, and that my sole purpose for being there was to be of service to the wildfire survivors.

“Sometimes a good haircut can be transformative. It can lift a huge weight off our shoulders,” I said. “In a symbolic way, maybe, but an outward sign of change that can be a real morale booster, no matter what’s going on in our lives. I see it happen daily in the salon. It’s what I know how to do, so that’s why I’m here. But I need a place to work.”

When he didn’t reply, I took a deep breath and plunged back in. “Another thing—my clients asked me to find a family to help. Someone who’s fallen through the cracks and has nowhere else to turn. Someone whose life we could make a real difference to.”

I could sense Paul was skeptical. But I left him my card and asked him to please think about it. When he called back to give me not only that information, but also encouragement, I hung up in tears of joy. The full scope of what I was trying to accomplish might soon be deliverable and it truly felt like divine intervention.

Shalom at Maui Media Healers Hui.  

Shalom at Maui Media Healers Hui. 

I contacted Paul’s friend, Shalom, who runs a local clinic at the Royal Lahaina Hotel called Maui Medic Healers Hui. Spiritually powerful and intensely focused on caring for her community, Shalom helps people heal their bodies, minds, and spirits holistically.

In the mornings, Jeannie drove me to work in her golf cart, where I set up a makeshift salon and set about working my magic alongside Shalom, acupuncturists, and others volunteering their time and services. I would put out a sign-up sheet and within five minutes it would be full.

I cut a lot of older Hawaiian men’s hair; their questions doused with skepticism. “Why you do dis, Sista? You spend your own money and come here to help us? Why?”

Every time, it made me cry. I cried every day I was there. But skeptical questions needed straight answers.

“I’ve wanted to be here since August. For the past thirty years, I’ve come from the mainland to enjoy the islands—and now is the time to give back. Cutting hair is what I know how to do, so that’s what I’m doing.”

The makeshift salon.  

The makeshift salon. 

After they realized I was sincere, they’d take a seat and allow me to cut their hair. And then they’d talk story—harrowing stories of how they’d escaped the flames but lost everything. About the confluence of factors that contributed to the deadly wildfire. With a decades-long series of human errors that exploded that awful day alongside Mother Nature’s wrath, it was a miracle that anyone had survived.

When Jeannie drove me back to the airport two weeks later, I felt like I had a treasure chest inside me. Inside were gold nuggets filled with the words and stories of these strong, amazingly resilient people. These nuggets mean more to me now than any of my worldly possessions.

The group of volunteers at the salon welcome wildfire victims.  

The group of volunteers at the salon welcome wildfire victims. 

Reconnecting with my friend, and meeting so many who had lost everything, yet somehow maintained their optimism, had changed me. It was an experience that I will cherish always. I can’t wait to go back and do it again.

But in the meantime, a colleague who had been inspired by my Maui trip asked if I’d like to do some charity work with her locally. We learned there are around a dozen shelters in San José alone that house hundreds of people, many of whom are actively looking for jobs and trying to get back on their feet. So, five of us hairdressers have arranged to cut hair at our local shelter soon. We are excited to see where this might lead.

In writing this article, I hope to inspire others in our industry to do the same. There are opportunities all around us, everywhere we go. Opportunities to help those less fortunate or in need.

Opportunities to be the Aloha we wish to see in the world.

Though our path wasn’t without roadblocks, I’m certain we ended up exactly where we were supposed to be. It was the first vacation in my life that was completely about others. It was the greatest honor of my life and fills every cell in my body with joy like nothing else ever has. I don’t believe I’ll ever go anywhere in the world without finding an opportunity to give back, at least in some small way.

So, the next time you plan a vacation somewhere, or even in your own backyard, I invite you to do the same.

When hairdressers unite, there isn’t much we can’t do.

“Do the good works—and mahalo for your service.

About the Author: Sherry Beenett is the owner and a stylist at The Right Spot Salon in Campbell, California. In 1973, Sherry became a professional hairstylist at a revolutionary moment in the beauty industry. The very moment hairdressing evolved from weekly shampoo sets to the wash-and-wear hairstyles we know today–all thanks to famed hairstylist Vidal Sassoon, who coincidentally, had just opened a salon in her hometown of Dallas Texas. 

Fresh out of beauty school, she went to work at a salon called Hair Fantastic. There she joined a team of all male stylists who, as luck would have it, were being trained by Global Artistic Director Scott Fisher from the Sassoon Academy. 

Ten years later, Sherry moved to California and opened her first salon at age 26. After stepping up from a cosmetology role to salon owner, she soon realized her need for business training and under the mentorship of Industry Icons Tony Fanelli and Vickie O’Gara, completed an extensive salon management program called Turning Point. With her well-rounded skill set finally in place, she grew her salon team from three to sixteen employees and four thousand clients in just five years. 

Sherry feels like the luckiest hairdresser ever. She’s still working behind the chair five days a week and loving it so, for now, has no plans to retire anytime soon. 


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Originally posted on Salon Today

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