February 14, 2020

A cut above: School president uses free haircuts to help shape the faiths and futures of his students

Even in his role as interim president of Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis, Fred Yeakey finds time to give free haircuts to students, including senior Richard Underwood. Yeakey uses the haircuts as part of his plan of “grooming the outer man while guiding the inner man.” (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Even in his role as interim president of Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis, Fred Yeakey finds time to give free haircuts to students, including senior Richard Underwood. Yeakey uses the haircuts as part of his plan of “grooming the outer man while guiding the inner man.” (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The banter is quick and lively, filling the room with strong opinions before someone makes a comment that unites everyone in laughter.

In its friendliness and its openness, the scene would be familiar in countless barbershops across the country, but this one on the ground floor of Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis has its own distinct flair.

The lone barber in the room is the interim president of this private Catholic high school—Fred Yeakey, a 37-year-old father of three small children. As Yeakey takes time each week to cut the hair of students, he also cuts through the noise of the world to help them shape their lives.

For the students, there is the bonus of getting a haircut for free. But the best part is when they look in the mirror and see the difference in themselves.

“He’s done a lot for me, helping me spiritually, helping me grow as a man,” says 18-year-old Richard Underwood, a senior who has been getting his hair cut by Yeakey for the past three years. “Spiritually, he’s a man of God, and I feel he’s brought me closer to him.

“He took me aside in my sophomore year and said, ‘You’re not going to be the same by your senior year.’ And he’s right. It’s maturity—learning how to deal with issues, keeping my head in the books, being more of a strong leader.”

Jimmie Darbonne flashes a huge smile when he talks about Yeakey.

“That’s a good man, right there,” says the 17-year-old senior. “He’s given me a different way to look at stuff. He talks about the steps you can do that affect your future.”

That’s exactly what Yeakey had in mind when he started his plan of “grooming the outer man while guiding the inner man.”

An opportunity to be transformed

For Yeakey, it all starts from a belief in the power of God and education to transform lives.

“One of the things that I realized in my late 20s is that education is not just a job, it really is a vocation,” he says. “It’s a ministry. Since God placed me in education, I wanted to make sure that I use this as a vehicle to demonstrate the love of God through acts of service, through patience, through showing forgiveness.”

He has also always strived to help high school students through what is an important and vulnerable time. That approach has taken on added dimensions at Providence Cristo Rey, a school designed to help students from low-income families change their lives through the combination of a college preparatory education and a work-study program.

“Our mission and our goal is very clear: We want every student to receive a quality education, an education that we believe must include Jesus Christ, first and foremost,” he says. “The other thing that I believe every student should leave out of here with are experiences that are tangible, that they can apply to their life now and in the pursuit of their future.”

The school’s work-study program helps to change “the generational poverty that many of our students have challenges with,” Yeakey says.

“Poor people don’t know they’re poor until they’re around other things that we don’t have. They’re rich in culture and love. They’re rich in having resources and people who have helped them. But you really don’t know what you have until you have an opportunity to be transformed, and that’s what we do.

“We take kids that ride past a big building like Eli Lilly. Now I’m going to put you inside that building, and you’re going to work. You’re not only going to work, you’re going to see people who look like you. You’re going to see that you can transform your life.”

And Yeakey insists that getting a free haircut from someone who cares about you and your future can also help you change your life.

‘This is the ministry God gave me’

“The barbershop is a wonderful opportunity to talk about the power of grooming—grooming yourselves as young men, both outwardly and inwardly,” Yeakey says.

“You have one chance for a first impression and your first impression is often made by what you look like, what you are wearing, and how you present yourself. And those transfer into a lot of skills that relate directly to our mission— corporate work-study, being professional. But not only that, but ‘What does it take to be a man? Not just any man, but what is a man of God?’ That’s where the inward goal goes to. Many people take pride in their outward appearance, but they never take time to see ‘I have a soul, and how do I deal with that?’

“Many of my young men don’t have fathers at home. So this is a safe place for them to be transparent, to talk about things.”

To talk about their struggles, their futures, their doubts, their hopes.

“Mr. Yeakey is someone I look up to and depend on,” says Anthony Shaffer, an 18-year-old senior. “I know I want to go to college. He keeps me on the right track.”

Yeakey’s track as a barber began in college when he started cutting hair for extra money. He saw the potential of haircuts to shape someone’s life when he started teaching at Arlington High School in Indianapolis in 2010.

“I just wanted to do something because my students weren’t engaged in school. They were dropping out. I just didn’t want them to die. I wanted them to finish. They said, ‘How about you cut our hair?’ I went to the principal. He said, ‘I think it’s a great idea.’ I started with three, and I had no clue that God was going to blow on it. It just blew up. I thought, ‘I think this is the ministry God gave me.’ ”

‘Where do you see yourself?’

Yeakey continued the haircuts at two other schools before he arrived at Providence Cristo Rey three years ago as dean of students.

“A haircut does something for them,” he says. “Number one, it’s free. Secondly, it gives them immediate gratification because they now have something that makes them feel better. And there’s something about someone doing a free act of kindness to you that breaks down the barriers. I think that alone gives them something that they can immediately grab ahold of. They get the mirror and you see the confidence come.

“And to know you had a part of building confidence—which is another way of saying it’s about relationships—now you give them something that they didn’t have before, and that just continues to unfold. Then it’s a level of trust.”

That trust leads to conversations.

“We have discussions like how to be a man. You can live a life and just exist. But to truly live means you have purpose. We talk about, ‘Where do you see yourself—your vision?’ Before I cut your hair, I give you the mirror. And you are looking at yourself, but you see yourself differently. So much so that you convince me, and I give you what you saw. So something as small as that can be transformational. And then it extends to how they have to apply themselves in life.”

It’s the defining part of Yeakey’s efforts to not only style their hair, but to bring shape and definition to the substance of their lives.

“I see them take on a level of leadership and accountability,” he says. “I’m able to talk to them as a mentor, but I’m also holding them to a level of accountability where they internally understand, ‘I have to self-correct this. Your job, Mr. Yeakey, is to just remind me of who I am.’ So you see that immediate responsibility and maturity. You also see them taking much pride in their outward appearance. When you can self-correct, you can prevent a lot of things in your life.”

‘I have something to contribute’

Even with all his faith and hope, there are moments when Yeakey is surprised by where his efforts have led.

He recalls a time when he and his wife Danijel were at a skating rink in Avon when he was approached by a man, about 30, who called out to him, “Mr. Fred!”

The man introduced himself, telling Yeakey that he was one of his former students from years ago, when Yeakey was fresh out of college. Back then, the man was part of a group of high school seniors, a group that had given Yeakey a hard time even as he tried to mentor them.

Yeakey recalls the man telling him, “I want to tell you I’m sorry. Everything that you said, that you tried to teach me, you were right. And I want you to know I listened. I went to college. I graduated. I have a son. And I’m managing restaurants. I’m sorry for giving you a hard time. You were right. And those haircuts were good, too.’ ”

Yeakey smiles as he finishes that story. A moment later, he becomes reflective.

“I pray that what I do does not become about me, but what I do can help shape them to change the world, where they can say, ‘I have something to contribute.’

“I also think part of what I do is teaching and sharing the word of God outside of the church, outside of a Bible, but I can be that presence. Through something as small as a haircut, I can help make disciples for Christ. That’s what my goal is.” †

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