TAMPA, Fla. - Vanessa Howard has been there.
Her mother started using drugs at age 12. She was pregnant at 16. Then came domestic violence. She became suicidal and homeless at 22.
Howard's lowest point came when she reached inside an oven for taco shells - and pulled out a rat.
"I literally spiraled down," she said. "I ran into the room and began to cry, balled up into the fetal position. And I just began to literally cry out to God. I remember asking God if he was real."
She cried herself to sleep that night.
Here's Howard explaining what it was like being homeless and suicidal:
The next day, a stranger gave Howard an apartment, despite her having no money.
That moment was the beginning of her journey of hope, she said.
Howard, 48, eventually remarried and moved from Milwaukee to Tampa in 2008.
Her husband had a job. She lost hers.
"I remember going into prayer and I remember God telling me that I'm calling you to go to school for hair," she said. "I want you to open up a salon and I want you to name it Giving Hands Beauty Salon...because it would be a beacon of light, of hope for women who are like you."
It was during that prayer that Howard was directed to host monthly makeovers for women going through difficult times.
"Of course people thought I was a little bit out of my mind to start a business and to give back immediately," she said. "I was in business five months. And I started giving these free makeovers with my own money."
Howard has done 285 makeovers since opening her Dale Mabry Highway shop in January 2014.
She's done them for women who are homeless. Fresh out of prison. Those in sex trafficking. Domestic violence victims. Foster children. Cancer patients.
"These women come in here broken," she said. "These women come in here not knowing what to expect. And I tell them my story. I give them my testimony and I'm very relatable to them because I was once homeless. I was once suicidal. I was once the one that didn't have any hope. And so when they come in here, we just pour God's love up on them."
‘Angels out of nowhere'
Amber McLoon’s social worker knew she was going through a rough time.
So her pampering during one of Howard's recent makeover sessions was sorely needed.
"Out of this world. Very relaxing. I feel marvelous right now,” she said while receiving a foot massage.
McLoon, who is being treated at Moffitt Cancer Center for stage 4 breast cancer, described herself as “practically homeless.”
She moved to Tampa to live with her sister, whose boyfriend later wanted her out of their place. McLoon then stayed with his mother, who told her recently that she should move back to Georgia.
But McLoon has to stay in Tampa for treatment.
“I’ve go to get this behind me and this is a way to relax my mind,” she said of the makeover.
McLoon was one of three breast cancer patients being treated to a day of pampering at Howard’s salon.
For Ivy, it was not how she expected her day to go.
She was walking down the street when someone stopped her, and after hearing her story, asked if she wanted a makeover.
“I was so surprised,” she said. “I was like ‘oh my lord.’ It’s so hard to find that now, that people actually genuinely care and try to help other people and care about the way they feel. You don’t even know what to expect when you come in here, but it’s actually a real place and it’s everything. It’s so, it’s just, I don’t even know the word for it. It makes you speechless to see this.”
It was Suzanne Lehman’s first time at one of Howard’s pampering session, but it represented her second bout with cancer.
She beat breast cancer once. It came back three years later, along with bone cancer.
Lehman’s husband found a flier about the makeovers while at the cancer center.
“It’s kinda nice to have someone take care of me and my husband takes good care of me, but to take care of me like this, you wouldn’t catch him painting my toenails in a million years,” she said. “But it’s been great. Thank God for these angels that just came out of nowhere.”
Here's Howard discussing how the spa day for cancer patients came about:
A transformative experience
Howard describes the makeover experience as a metamorphosis.
“They come in like a cocoon,” she said. “They come in broken. They come in hopeless. They come in here not knowing what to expect. And so when they come in here, literally I just watch and see how the walls just begin to come down and they begin to open up to us.”
Achieving such requires Howard and her staff to show that they care, she said.
The end result are women seeing themselves as a new person.
“We see the tears,” she said. “We see the laughter. We see the confidence. We see the joy in these women. We see how these women go out here and they’re so confident that they get that job. And they go get that home. When we watch and we see that, it makes it all the worth while."