Anthony Black’s haircuts look better these days.
"I’m going to be honest,” he said of his mom’s past haircut attempts, “they were horrible.”
Black, 14, turned to the clippers belonging to Tony Saez. Since September 2016, Saez has set up his business at the Headlines barber shop across from Tyrone Mall in Seminole.
His barber chair has become part grooming station and part therapy couch.
“A story like mine can really change someone’s mind,” he said with a smile.
Across from Black, seated against a wall in a row of black chairs, sat Orlando Temple and his two sons, Cameron and Chase. The father brings his kids to see Saez and hear the stories of who the barber used to be.
“He’s always, like, the type of guy you want to talk to,” said 9-year old Chase.
“If someone walks in he always greets them with a smile and a handshake,” added 11-year old Cameron. “That’s why I like him.”
The boys are just a small sample of the kids who are impacted by Saez’s checkered past.
“I started seeking out people who were doing what I was doing. I was pretty lost. I got into gangs,” said Saez, who started smoking cigarettes at 11 and quickly moved into harder drugs. “I’ve been there. I’ve seen the dark side.”
At the age of 20, after an adolescence that featured multiple run-ins with the law, Saez found himself in prison for the first time. In all, he’d spend 14 years behind bars over three different stints. The longest lasted seven years.
The gang and drug lifestyle kept dragging him down. Now, at the age of 45, he looks back on the choices he made and has decided to use those negative experiences to create positive futures for kids in his community.
“I believe everybody’s path in life is for a reason,” he said. “Nothing is a coincidence.”
Saez started his True Hair Culture brand last year. He developed the idea to brand his business after seeing similar ideas at hair-cutting conventions. He got a trademark and started manufacturing hats and shirts with the True Hair Culture logo. His mission grew from the apparel.
“I take 20 percent from a shirt, a hat, whatever it may be, and I just go ahead donate it,” said Saez.
Adrien Riley has aligned with Saez’s mission, too. He helps run the Tampa Bay Youth Build program, which aims to prepare troubled youth ready for careers by getting them the necessary education to obtain a high school diploma. In 2017, the group mentored 34 students.
“A lot of times they may or may not have a father present in the home. They may or may not have had run-ins with the law,” said Riley, who now gets his hair cut by Saez. “We’re trying to support the youth of this community in any way we can, really.”
Riley’s Tampa Bay Youth Build is one of three programs to financially benefit from True Hair Culture so far. The first, Got Your Back San Diego, was special to Saez since he grew up in the California community.
He hopes to eventually grow his True Hair Culture brand to a point where he can make sizable contributions to national agencies that help keep kids from making poor decisions similar to the ones he made as a teen.
Saez got his barbers license from the American Institute of Beauty in 2012. It allowed him the chance to pour into kids on a one-on-one level every few weeks during 30-minute long haircuts.
“I fell in love with it. I got a passion for it,” he said. “Making people look good and feel good, it’s pretty rewarding.”
Black said he spent more time talking about school and his mother with Saez than any other topic. Those conversations revolve around treating people with respect and studying hard. They are exactly what Saez wants to hear.
“He knows if he’s doing something wrong, I’m going to let him know about it,” he said.
“Yes sir,” said Black. “Even when times get hard.”
Saez started offering his haircuts to Riley’s kids before they head out for job interviews.
“If you look good, you feel good and you’re able to go out and seize the opportunity,” said Riley.
True Hair Culture is available online or in Saez’s shop. It’s growing slowly and has the potential to help a lot of local kids.
"I find that the barber is a very influential person in the community,
Said Saez, who credits the birth of his son for helping him turn around his life from one of crime into one of influence. “Then you become more than just a barber. You build a relationship with them.”
Saez’s shop, called Headlines, is located at 6978 22nd Ave N., St. Petersburg, FL 33772.
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