Project Feel Good – a Fruition Initiative

Words by Jenny Burns, Culture Magazine.

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Craig is humbly aware of how blessed his is to enjoy so many incredible opportunities afforded to him by hairdressing. It’s not like that for everybody as we all know. But it was an experience in Vietnam two years ago that really hit home for this Toowoomba lad and completely changed his life. Alongside industry colleague Maria Unali, in 2013 Craig travelled to this developing country for the Shaping Futures program, a Schwarzkopf global initiative in community responsibility that teaches young disadvantaged adolescents skills in hairdressing. The pair spent two weeks doing the cutting component of a six-week training program with kids from villages who had been identified as having the potential for a future in hairdressing. “Maria and I were equally affected by the program,” Craig tells, “but something inside me changed and I knew I couldn’t walk away from these kids.” The only thing they have in common is heart wrenchingly sad. They may have been abandoned or their mum might have died and their dad hooked up with a new wife who didn’t want his children, so they were sent off to an orphanage. In some cases the kids have a parent, but that parent dumped them. I felt that the program gave these kids an injection of what their future might look like, but then it just fell off the edge of a cliff, so that’s where my idea of taking some kind of community initiative overseas came from. I’d been working with various youth based charities in Australia and I love doing cool things with young kids, but I think the big thing for me was that even if things are really, really bad for you here in Australia, we live in a country where you’ll still own a car, you’ll still have a plasma TV, you can have a job if you want one, and you’ll have food to eat. If you want that, our society will give it to you. I was looking at the wealth we have here – and you shouldn’t compare but it’s different to the type of situation with these Vietnamese kids.”I thought about what their future might look like – not if we didn’t do something but if we did do something”. “That collective of kids that we met made me want to start something that was ongoing”. This led to the establishment of Craig’s personal charity program, Project Feel Good. “When I first visited Vietnam for Shaping Futures I remembered meeting a lovely lady by the name of Hang – she had one of the few names that I could pronounce in Vietnamese – so when I went back over I made
contact with her and told her that I wanted to start this project and take these children to another level. In one way there is a desperateness about the situation, but in another it’s quite the opposite. These kids are beautifully groomed and presented; they have manners that are impeccable and they have respect. If you give them one little opportunity they will grab it with both hands and run with it. Unfortunately that’s something that is a little bit lost on many of the kids in Australia who might have had opportunities presented to them but couldn’t be bothered. Anyway I told Hang I wanted to run this program off my own back and she agreed to help me. In the two years since I first went to Vietnam we’ve grown in leaps and bounds and I think it’s because Hang stuck her neck out for me. She risked being wiped by the hairdressing community over there because she was helping me. Likewise Tien, our other friend who worked with us. She’s a 21-year-old who has a mum and dad and a lovely family unit and by chance she got to be our translator. She really connected with the kids on another level – her thinking was, this could have been me. I wouldn’t have Project Feel Good if it wasn’t for Hang and Tien. We’ve engaged the support of most of the industry’s big players and collectively we’re able to give a skill set to these kids to provide them with independent living. And it’s happened in a Vietnamese manner, not in an Australian way. Now we are at the stage where we’re going over there and starting to identify other kids, not necessarily from orphanages, but disadvantaged kids we’re putting them through the initial stages of the next program. There are Vietnamese salon owners who are giving up their time to watch and support and communicate with the kids too. This last time at the end of three days, the new kids we had in the group all got jobs with salon owners that you and I would trust our own children to go and work for. It was wonderful.

I thought about what their future might look like – not if we didn’t do something but if we did do something

“It’s taken us two years to get Project Feel Good to where it is, but we are changing lives.”  Some of the kids are now earning good money, way above the standard monthly Vietnamese wage.

There’s no apprenticeship system over there, so if you meet a good salon owner and they are kind to you, then that’s a good outcome. In that country it can very easily be the opposite – young girls who have been brought up in an orphanage are at the mercy of a city like Ho Chi Minh. As I said, we can’t save every teenage orphan, but we can empower some of them. Now some of the older kids are starting to mentor the younger ones; they are very appreciative of how the industry has been good for them financially so in situation where some of the newer kids can’t afford to get back to the city to continue their training, they actually pay for them to come back. These are some of the types of individuals who are emerging out of this group.“We’re very non-denominational, I don’t care from which company the help comes from, but if people want to pitch in and contribute anything whether it be money of head blocks or scissors, I’m all for it.
“One day it would be cool to do a show over there and bring these kids on stage – I tell you some of their work is incredible.” It’s a sink or swim mentality for them. If they get this right, they can fly. If they get booted out of the group or lose their job, no one there cares, there isn’t a mum or dad behind them as a back up. They are dangling by threads, so if we can keep adding fibre and create a rope for them, that’s what they need.
“I want the project to continue to grow and I’d really like to see these kids end up with a salon of their own one day;” that’s certainly not out of the question, that Project Feel Good will open its own salon. It’s really achievable if it’s run by Vietnamese kids. I remember Hang telling me early in the piece that it wasn’t going to work, it was too hard, but that was kind of like the red flag for me, I knew we had to win.“It’s another level of hopelessness for these kids. But if you went there and met them, you wouldn’t get that vibe from them. They won’t tell you that they have a problem. If you ask them how they are, they’ll tell you they’re good. Because as long as they have something to eat and a roof over their head things are good, plus they have this incredible resolve that one day something will happen to make their life different. I’d have a salon full of Vietnamese kids in a heartbeat, they are very special. Project Feel Good is my favourite thing”.