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Contributed photo / The Kidz Kutz stylists remove their masks for a group photo. From left are Bethany Dean, Madison Emahiser, Aleishia Hicks, Danielle Talley, Emily Johnson and Amber Middleton.

A mother of three, Emily Johnson knows what an ordeal it can be to stay on top of haircuts for the entire family. As the owner of VIBES Hair Studio, she also knows what a difference a haircut can make for one's overall sense of worth and wellness.

In addition to the family cuts she provides at her Fort Oglethorpe studio, Johnson operates Kidz Kutz, a young outreach that offers free haircuts for area kids at least once a year.

"A haircut can seem like such a small thing to some people, but for that kid, it's everything. I had so many people reach around and give me hugs after," she said of her most recent Kidz Kutz event, held in mid-October.

Having done only one other such event before — for which she partnered with Walker County Schools, where two of her children attend — and with the ongoing pandemic, Johnson wasn't sure what to expect. But last year's event showed her the need.

She welcomed over 100 people to that first event.

This year, she said, she would've been "happy to just do one person." She ended up hosting nearly 70.

Instead of being held at Ridgeland High School, Johnson moved the event to her shop, allowing no more than 10 people in at a time. Guests were required to make an appointment, have their temperature checked, wear a mask and sanitize their hands before climbing into the stylist's chair, she said. She used disposable capes and let the children take home the combs used on them.

"Some kids don't even have hairbrushes," she said. "Some kids have never gotten their hair washed at a hair salon before."

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Contributed photo / The stylists — who came from studios beyond VIBES — volunteered their time and any tips, which will help purchase holiday items for area kids in need.

Johnson is quick to note that she welcomes everyone and affixes no labels to anyone who takes advantage of the free service, especially after COVID-19-related closures left millions of Americans without jobs and many more struggling amid all the economic uncertainty — a situation she personally knows all too well.

Getting through the studio's six-and-a-half-week closure was tough for Johnson and her staff of 12. Her savings unable to weather the unprecedented period of net loss, she realized the fragility of many families' financial situation. Yet she also saw how family units — neighbors, staff, clients or friends — rise to the occasion when needed.

Clients purchased gift cards through her to help her pay her rent. One of Johnson's staff members paid her phone bill.

"So many people helped me and my girls, I just wanted to give back," she said, adding, "Our kids have suffered the most this year, and the smallest act to make things brighter, we are here for it."

In the future, she'd like to expand the outreach to Catoosa County Schools, and even adult men and women at some point. And this year's safety protocols sparked another idea: providing gift bags filled with shampoo, conditioner, hair bows and brushes for the kids.

"People help me and have helped me in the past, and I just want to give it back," Johnson said. "If anybody needs us, don't be afraid to come to us. My name's Emily and I will cut your hair."

Contact Jennifer Bardoner at jbardoner@timesfreepress.com.

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