Feel-good focus: Ash & Willow Salon’s Holly Santelli empowers young women in Bali and Guatemala by teaching them a trade they can use for a lifetime
“Feel-good focus” is a new series of articles celebrating local residents doing good things for others
By Trent Modglin
For those of you, like myself, who have always been a little skeptical, it turns out there are podcasts out there that can truly change your life. Or at least change some of your goals and ambitions in life. And, as it turns out, definitely change your vacation plans.
A perfect example is Holly Santelli, owner of Ash & Willow Eco Salon and Beauty Apothecary here in Park Ridge, who happened to be listening to a podcast called Hair Aid a few years ago and learned about an Australian woman’s non-profit that organizes outings to impoverished countries. The goal: to teach young women how to cut hair for a living.
Not long after that, Holly found herself in areas of Bali that the tourist commercials won’t show you, watching young people sort water bottles out of a trash dump for $1 a day. Her group joined forces with a local community center designed to empower locals by feeding them, teaching them different trades and setting up learning programs for children who couldn’t get to school.
“To empower people to do something for the rest of their lives is a pretty awesome, powerful experience.”
“One woman’s walls were made out of cardboard, not even tin,” Holly tells me. “She had dirt floors without anything.”
It was eye opening for sure, and according to Holly, the most life-changing trip she’s ever taken, as they split time between teaching young women how to cut hair in six different styles and participating in an outreach program that included visits to local jails, hospitals and community centers.
“This was a two-week trip by myself, the first time alone in another country,” Holly says. “It was quite an adventure, and it was beautiful and everything I hoped it would be. I also got to learn about the culture, and I loved that. But empowering these women to do something they can do for themselves, and make money doing, was what it was all about.”
A trip to Indonesia followed, and then, more recently, two trips to Guatemala, where she brought her daughter, Olivia, along as a social media storyteller.
“It was really great for her to experience it and to see how important it was to tell their stories,” Holly says of having her daughter alongside. “But she was definitely shook by the living conditions in Guatemala and went through a period of anger. I had already seen it, and many of these people don’t know any different and were pretty happy with their simple lives. It hit her hard, but thankfully she had a much different reaction the second time we went.”
“To be able to give something to someone who can give you nothing back, truly from your heart with no expectations, is what it’s all about.” — Holly Santelli
Similar to Bali and Indonesia, they spent several days teaching young Guatemalan women how to cut hair before working with the community centers and taking the girls they’d trained out to cut hair at a nearby coffee farm, where conditions were destitute and heads were filled with lice. They even ventured out into a few indigenous communities, where an entire village would come out to watch the scissors fly, fascinated.
Holly’s group provided the students, who often left their families and traveled hours to take part in the trainings, with a big bag of donated salon supplies. But there was a rule: They had to show up for five days in a row to graduate before they would be given the supplies.
Holly worked with the same group of Guatemalan students each year. On the first visit, she found herself constantly stepping in to fix haircuts. The second year, not so much.
“All three of them are cutting hair professionally now,” Holly says with a smile. “They have a skill, and we tell them to make sure to charge for it — $1 a haircut. They’re doing up to 20 haircuts a week, which is amazing. I’m really proud of them. They’ve really come so far.”
Holly and her staff at Ash & Willow keep up with their students’ lives in Guatemala and their progress as hairstylists via Facebook and Whatsapp.
Holly and her staff at Ash & Willow keep up with their students’ lives in Guatemala and their progress as hairstylists via Facebook and Whatsapp, where the women share photos of haircuts they’ve done and what they’re starting to specialize in.
“To be able to give something to someone who can give you nothing back, truly from your heart with no expectations, is what it’s all about,” Holly says. “To see other cultures and how other people live, and working with them, it made me want to incorporate this philosophy into my business model, to teach my own employees to give back.
“To empower people to do something for the rest of their lives is a pretty awesome, powerful experience. They were some incredible people to work with, and I wish I could’ve brought some of them back with me.”
Next up is Cambodia and Vietnam, likely next winter, and then back to Bali. And Holly will be taking a few of her Ash & Willow staff with her this time in an effort to make a larger impact. If you’d like to make a donation toward their next trip, you can contact Ash & Willow (610 Devon Ave. in Park Ridge) at 847-696-7560. AshWillowSalon.com