Last summer, Katie Steller pulled off the freeway on her way to work in Minneapolis. She stopped at a traffic light, where a man was sitting with a sign asking for help. She rolled down her window.
“Hey!” she shouted. “I’m driving around giving free haircuts. If I go grab my chair, do you want one right now?”
The man looked to be in his 60s. He was heavyset, balding, and missing a few teeth. As Steller likes to tell the story, he laughed, then paused. “Actually,” he said, “I have a funeral to go to this week. I was really hoping to get a haircut.”
“I’ll be right back,” Steller said.
She drove off, went to the salon she owns, and recruited one of her stylists to help her load a red chair into her car. Then the two of them drove back. The man, named Edward, took a seat, and they trimmed his curly graying hair. He told them about growing up in Mississippi, about moving to Minnesota to be closer to his adult children, and how he still talks to his mom every day.
After Steller was done, Edward looked in a mirror. “I look good!” he said. “I’ll have to remember to put my teeth in next time.”
To date, Steller has given 30 or so such haircuts to people around the city. These clients are all living on the margins, and she is keenly aware of the power of her cleanup job.
“It’s more than a haircut,” she says. “I want it to be a gateway, to show value and respect, but also to get to know people. I want to build relationships.”
Steller knows that a haircut can change a life. One changed hers: As a teen, she suffered from a bowel disease called ulcerative colitis that was so severe, her hair thinned drastically. Seeing this, her mother arranged for Steller’s first professional haircut.
“To sit down and have somebody look at me and talk to me like a person and not just an illness, it helped me feel cared about and less alone,” she says.
After that, Steller knew she wanted to have her own salon so she could help people feel the way she’d felt that day. Not long after finishing cosmetology school in 2009, she began what she now calls her Red Chair Project, reaching out to people on the streets.
“Part of what broke my heart was just how lonely people looked,” she says. “I thought maybe I’d go around and ask if people want free haircuts. I can’t fix their problems, but maybe I can help them feel less alone for a moment.”
Steller listens to people’s stories of loss, addiction, and struggle to get back on their feet. The attention apparently works. When she was cutting a woman’s hair one day, someone drove by and yelled, “You look amazing!” The woman in the chair beamed.
“I’m not invisible,” she exclaimed. “I thought I was invisible. Look, people see me!”
Another man was on his way to a job interview at a pet-supply store when he accepted Steller’s offer. When she followed up, she learned he didn’t get that job, but he did get a landscaping job soon afterward.
An offshoot of the Red Chair Project is the Steller Kindness Project, in which people who commit acts of kindness (volunteering for hurricane relief, helping neighbors in need) are invited for a free makeover at Steller’s salon. In exchange, they tell their stories, which Steller shares on her website. Her hope is that by reading about kind acts, others will be inspired to spread their own.
So far, it’s working, she says. “I’ve had people reach out from around the country, saying, ‘I’m going to shelters and cutting hair.’ Or, ‘I’ve driven by this woman for the past two years, and I’ve never stopped to say hi. Now I say hi to her every time I drive by.’”
And it all began with a belief in simple acts of kindness, such as a free haircut. “The way you show up in the world matters,” says Steller. “You have no idea what people are going to do with the kindness that you give them.”