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The Belfast hairdresser who took a break from his plush salon to bring fringe benefits to an Indian village

Paul Meekin has styled the hair of supermodels, but when he set off on a charity venture to one of the world’s poorest areas the experience proved a cut above, as he tells Stephanie Bell

A world away from the glamour of his everyday life in high fashion hairstyling, local man Paul Meekin has just spent two life-changing weeks working with children in an impoverished village in rural India.

Paul, who is the creative director of Partners Hair + Beauty in Belfast, and who is renowned for his photographic and session styling for top magazines and fashion shows, says witnessing such extreme poverty first-hand has given him a new appreciation of life.

Moved to tears many times during his visit, Paul confesses that he has had a hard time settling back into his life in Belfast since returning home last Thursday.

“It has taken me a long time to get back to normal and to my lifestyle,” he says. “When I walked into my salon it was like an assault on my senses.

“I’m not a diva and I’m not precious and when you do something like that you have to understand you are going to see things that we are not used to in Belfast but it was a real shock.

“I learnt I could do without all the luxuries and trappings of the western lifestyle. You only can wear one shirt at a time and only eat one meal at a time and the rest is just superficial. There are people living on a hell of a lot less and yet they are always smiling and accepting of their lives.”

Paul spent nearly two and half weeks in India teaching young people hairdressing skills as part of Schwarzkopf Professional’s charity initiative Shaping Futures.

The programme, launched in 2010 by Schwarzkopf Professional in co-operation with SOS Children’s Villages, supports disadvantaged young people living in developing countries by enabling them to learn hairdressing skills in the hope of securing a job.

Paul was immersed with the Shaping Futures team of two technicians and seven volunteers from Schwarzkopf Professional salons across the UK who each paid their own airfare and raised £2,000 for equipment and teaching materials.

It couldn’t have been further removed from the glitz of his high-flying career which has seen him style supermodels at London Fashion Week as well as celebrities such as Samantha Mumba, Joss Stone and Adrian Dunbar.

“I was at the Irish Hairdressing Awards earlier this year when a woman from England was talking about Shaping Futures,” explains Paul of his involvement in the initiative.

“I had never heard of the charity and I’m at the stage in my career where I feel like I want to give something back and I expressed an interest in taking part next year.

“However, I got a call in September to say that someone had dropped out of the trip this year and asking if I would go. My business partner Geoff was brilliant and told me to go for it and I signed up with no idea what to expect.”

Paul (55) was based in the remote village of Bawana, which is north-west of Delhi where he and his team were teaching the basics of hairdressing to 22 students aged from 17 to 22.

From his high-tech modern salon in Belfast, where he regularly hosts training academies, he found himself teaching with one tap of cold water to wash hair and just four plugs for hair dryers and straighteners.

But as well as the primitive way of life in the village Paul was struck by the positive attitude of the people who touched his heart.

“It was unbelievably rural,” he says. “There were camels on the street and monkeys. One day I was eating a banana at lunch and a large male monkey and his whole family of wives and babies were standing behind me. They were after my lunch, which I soon handed over.

“There was no hot water, the power kept cutting out and there were no toilets — people just went on the street in front of you.

“We were teaching the basic bob, a mens’ cut, perming, straightening and colouring.

“The idea was to give the young people an introduction to hairdressing to see if they wanted to go on and follow it as a career and then Schwarzkopf would try and get them placed in salons.

“The enthusiasm of the pupils was amazing. Their attitude to work and their elders was very refreshing.

“Teaching here, many of the young people are sitting in front of you with long faces because their bosses have made them go. For the young people out there it was perhaps their last chance in life to escape from poverty and make something of themselves. They were very respectful and they were like sponges, wanting to learn as much as they could.”

Most families in the village survived on an income of around £2 a day and with no hot water and basic sanitary facilities Paul marvelled at how well turned out the young people were every day.

Their gratitude and smiles also tugged at the Belfast man’s heartstrings.

“There was one boy who walked around the whole time with a real swagger,” he says.

“On the last day he came up to us crying and threw his arms around us and asked ‘What are we going to do when you go? We will miss you so much’.

“That had me in tears and I was in tears many times during the two weeks.

“The people had such open hearts and that made it so special for me.

“I was giving them so little, but for them it was so much and that for me was overwhelming.”

A highlight of the trip was when the charity hired a bus to take the young people into Delhi to work in proper salon surroundings for the last day of their lesson.

For many it would have been the first time outside of their village and the first time they had seen the modern salon facilities which we take for granted.

“What we had been using was so basic and when they saw the salon at the academy in Delhi their eyes were on stalks, they couldn’t believe it,” he says.

“Driving in Delhi — and in fact the whole country — was crazy. Our car was hit three times while we were there and when I asked one local what the secret was to driving in Delhi he said you need three things — good brakes, a good horn and good luck.”

Paul hopes to join the charity’s academy again and plans to start fundraising in the New Year.

“I would go back tomorrow,” he says.

“Being there made me very aware of how lucky I am and how very supportive people are back home.

“I am surrounded by supportive staff and customers and I am very grateful for that.

“You can only ask people for money so many times so I will leave it until next year to fundraise for the charity and look at hopefully joining another team the year after.

“I’ve never done anything like it before and it was definitely life-changing.”

A better future, cut and dried...

What started in 2008 as a local Japanese project with Cambodian street children, evolved into a global initiative in 2010 when Schwarzkopf Professional partnered with SOS Children’s Villages — a leading non-profit organisation — to launch ‘Shaping Futures’.

The international hair care products company launched the initiative to provide young men and women from disadvantaged backgrounds with the opportunity to learn the basic hairdressing skills needed to establish a professional career and achieve financial security.

The four-week training program, of which Paul took part in the last two weeks, is delivered by volunteer hair experts from the United Kingdom, Croatia, Poland, Lebanon and Jordan.

The program covers a total of four modules: consultation, cutting, dressing and colour. During classes, students are given the opportunity to meet with local salon owners, enabling them to pursue careers in nearby salons.

“The initiative has already seen our students thrive after leaving their SOS Children’s Villages, some of them even getting jobs immediately after completing their trainingy,” says Katarzyna Walo, PPS Manager MEA of Schwarzkopf Professional.

Since the end of 2010, Schwarzkopf International has rolled out  the project in 20 countries, touching the lives of more than 800 young adults, while over 200 volunteers have shared their skills through more than 40 training classes.

For further details on Shaping Futures, visit www.schwarzkopf-professional.com/shaping_futures

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