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For 14 years, this Kansas City barber has been helping hundreds of kids get ready for school

Four children sit in barber chairs with men behind each chair in different stages of cutting. There is hair on the ground.
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
Joey Thomas said barbers volunteer their time each year to help hundreds of kids get ready for school.

Through his nonprofit, The Know Joey? Foundation, Barber Joey Thomas provides hundreds of free haircuts and school supplies to children before they start the year.

When Joey Thomas opened 180V Barber Salon, now just off of 18th and Vine, in 2008, he knew he wanted to make an impact on the community. That year, he began the Fresh Cut Fresh Start program to help the youth in his community look and feel their best.

“We wanted to cut hair for kids going back to school because, on behalf of myself and other barbers, we remembered that feeling of getting a fresh haircut for back-to-school,” Thomas said. “So, that was our whole goal. I think we was like, ‘If we could do 25 heads, that'd be great.’ We ended up doing 27 heads. So we surpassed it and from there we just been rolling.”

For the past 14 years, Thomas has run Fresh Cut Fresh Start through his nonprofit, The Know Joey? Foundation – a 501(c)(3) he formed specifically to host events for underserved youth. Sunday’s event featured haircuts, back-to-school supplies and a vaccine station courtesy of the Kansas City Health Department.

Thomas admits that some years he doubts whether Fresh Cut Fresh Start is still meaningful. But he’s never failed to put on the event, and it always draws large crowds. He said he wants every kid to be able to put their best foot forward at the start of school – sometimes, it’s the only haircut they get each year.

“One year, a young man was inside the shop, getting his haircut. He had braids in his hair, but underneath the braids, it looked like about three to four inches of new growth hair,” Thomas said. “So I go to the young fella, I laugh and joke with him. I'm like, ‘Hey man, when the last time you got a haircut?' He looked me dead in my eyes and was ‘like last year at Fresh Cut Fresh Start.’ Here I am trying to be funny and crack a joke here and there, but the only time he receiving a haircut is at this event. That moment has always stuck out to me as a reminder of what we really do this for.”

A man holds the back of a chair while a child sits on it. Beside them, another man looks on and smiles
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
Thomas says seeing the excitement in kids who come to get a haircut keeps him trying to find ways to make the event bigger.

A needed break for parents’ wallets

This year, Rose Nail went to the event with her three children, who are going into kindergarten, fifth and sixth grades. With inflation putting a strain on the family’s finances, she came to the event to make sure her kids got the school supplies they needed.

“Times are a bit tough right now, and we've seen the event where they do haircuts and back to school supplies, backpacks and whatnot,” Nail said. “So we're pretty excited to get some help. It's like a hundred dollars in school supplies for each child, and we can't afford that right now.”

Nail’s daughter Isabella is going into sixth grade in the Independence School District. She said the school supplies and backpack are helping calm her nerves about going to a new school. Her brother, Joseph, is going into fifth grade. He’s excited to get a top fade before school starts Monday.

For Marquita Sanders, the Fresh Cut Fresh Start event was a way for her and her three sons to get all the last-minute school preparation done in one place.

“It helps out a lot,” Sanders said. “It helps financially because then I don't have to spend so much on school supplies and then with immunizations, I can just make sure they're healthy. This was the last piece to the puzzle, to get immunizations and haircuts.”

Sanders tried to get her kids — two of whom are going into eighth grade and one into his senior year — the state-required Tdap and MCV vaccines at a clinic before Sunday, but the lines were too long.

Eighth graders Marquan and Demarion, two of her kids, said they’ve been coming to Fresh Cut Fresh Start for years. According to Marquan, the haircuts help offset the pain of the vaccines he has to get.

Two boys stand next to each other and pose with peace signs
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
Marquan (L) and Demarion (R) have been coming to Fresh Cut Fresh Start for years. While in line, they say the haircut is a nice reward for the vaccines they will also be getting.

“I just don't want more than two shots because I'm scared of needles,” Marquan said. “[But] I haven't had a haircut in a long time. I'm getting a taper – I’m just gonna cut these sides off.”

Seeing people like Marquan and Demarion year after year is gratifying to Thomas. He tries to use Fresh Cut Fresh Start as a way to mentor people and show others how much he cares about the community. Even with all 12 of his barber chairs full and hundreds of people in line, he looks for ways to establish a short relationship with each client — no matter how brief.

“Fourteen years later, you get kids that once was a kid 14 years ago, but now they’re married and have children of their own and maybe even invited their kid down to events,” Thomas said. “So that kind of stuff is pretty fun and surreal.”

This year, Thomas and his team at 180V are joined by eight other barbers volunteering their time for the event.

“I know at times it might seem like nobody's there to really reach out, nobody's there to really give back,” he said. “We want to dispel those myths. Fresh Cut, Fresh Start is a very small piece of what it takes when it comes to community development. It's a small taste of what we can truly do when we all just work together for a common goal. As far as the youth, from a big homie to a little homie, I just let them know, ‘Hey man, we got you.’”

After hours of cutting hair, Thomas is already looking forward to next year and thinking of ways to make year 15 of Fresh Cut Fresh Start bigger and better than the last. He said he’s thinking of starting an entrepreneur development program to further support the people who come to the back to school event each year.

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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