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A traveling barbershop in Nebraska provides boys with haircuts and mentorship

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Barbershops have always been gathering places - for a haircut, sure, but also for conversation about politics, sports and neighborhood gossip, bad jokes and good news. Now, a traveling barbershop in Lincoln, Neb., is helping kids look good and feel good. Nebraska Public Media's Mike Tobias reports.

MIKE TOBIAS, BYLINE: The hum of clippers and constant conversation fill every barbershop. It's where guys like Lawrence Chatters and KB Mensah talk about, well, everything.

KB MENSAH: Sweets are my weakness.

LAWRENCE CHATTERS: I can tell.

MENSAH: (Laughter).

TOBIAS: A few years ago, in a barber chair, Chatters, a Ph.D. clinical therapist, says he and Mensah, his barber, had an idea.

CHATTERS: What about bringing the mentoring and barbering and also counseling into this mobile component and taking that around and being able to serve people where they are?

TOBIAS: Yep - a barbershop in a bus. As part of the nonprofit they formed, they striped the insides out of a 36-foot party bus, installed four chairs, lights, towel warmers and other things barbers need - even a barber pole. It's called MIND Mobile, short for Mentoring In New Directions. Here's how it works.

MENSAH: How you doing?

TOBIAS: Once a week, four 9- to 13-year-old boys leave their after-school program and board the parked bus - kids who, for different reasons, need a little extra support in their lives. The first 45 minutes is a cut and conversation, like Barber Zach Wenz talking about school with Adrian Bivens.

ZACH WENZ: And the grades looking good, too?

ADRIAN BIVENS: Yeah.

WENZ: That's good. That's good. You got to keep them up.

TOBIAS: Chatters says barbers are paired with the same kid each week, with a plan.

CHATTERS: We prep our barbers before they go in to work with the young people, and they know what subject they'll be talking about that day. And then they're using the curriculum that we created to ask questions and guide them along this journey of development as they go through the 10-week process.

TOBIAS: Mensah trimmed Tele Phillips.

MENSAH: So what is one of those things in schools that you have to be confident about?

TELE PHILLIPS: Like, reading in front of the class.

MENSAH: Reading in front of the class?

TELE: Yeah.

MENSAH: How that make you feel? It make you feel weird?

TELE: Like, anxious, kind of.

MENSAH: Anxious?

TELE: Yeah.

TOBIAS: Barbers leave. Counselor Lawrence Gardiner joins the kids on the bus.

LAWRENCE GARDINER: I just provide the psychoeducation and make sure it goes in a direction where kids are developing different social skills, coping skills, communication skills.

TOBIAS: Youth mentoring programs aren't unusual - same with mobile barbershops. But Chatters and Mensah say this is a unique combination.

CHATTERS: So what really makes this stand out is that the space where it happens is a very therapeutic, intentional intervention space.

MENSAH: When I can get them to look good and just open up on how they want their hair cut, then that just opens up everything else.

TOBIAS: Mikayah Worthon is another of the barbers who volunteer for this program.

MIKAYAH WORTHON: We're natural therapists. Sometimes we're their first contact after school, after work, after a tough time, and they just need somebody to talk to them.

TOBIAS: It's counseling in a space that doesn't look like counseling. MIND Mobile launched and served 24 boys last year. Data they gathered shows positive growth in areas like confidence and problem-solving. There's now a waiting list of groups wanting the program. Chatters says it's a good 90 minutes a week most young people never get, especially often underserved young males of color.

CHATTERS: There are so many challenges that these young people face that we don't know anything about. And what we wanted to do is just create a space for them to feel better. The big picture is that we could create a curriculum. We create a project that can be duplicated across the United States.

TOBIAS: All created by two friends who figured out you can get a lot done in a barber chair.

For NPR News, I'm Mike Tobias in Lincoln, Neb. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mike Tobias