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Barber makes a difference by helping people look good

Paul Nemec found he could help people as a barber.

By Kaye Hult

It only takes one person to make a difference in another's life.

Each week, Paul Nemec, a barber with Bulwark Barbershop in Coeur d'Alene, makes a difference every time he goes out as Paul Nemec, Street Thug Barber.

He goes to events, such as the Housing Resource Fair at McEuen Park in September, where, at no charge, he cuts the hair of those who can't afford to go to a barber.

"What better way to help people than to help them look their best?" he asks. "Look good, feel good."

For a while, between 2018 and when COVID hit, he donated time at one of St Vincent de Paul's men's shelters in Coeur d'Alene. 

Residents were in transition from troubled times back into more normal lives. Perhaps they were preparing for a job interview, so they could earn the money to find permanent housing. Perhaps they were seeking to rekindle their relationship with their spouse or child.

"It's amazing, if I can help someone get out of their home to work for an employer," he thought.

"Often, the first thing people notice is how someone's face and hair look. One can tell about a person that way," Paul said.

"I began going to the men's shelter every week. Sometimes 15 or 30 people would line up," he said.

Paul had been a barber for a year when he began donating time as a Street Thug Barber.

"When I first started, there was a homeless man reintegrating into society," he remembered. "He insisted on paying me, but I refused, though he tried several times.

"When I saw him three years later, I didn't recognize him. He made an appointment for a cut at Bulwark Barbers," Paul said.

"The haircut three years earlier had helped him to find a job. Now he's a regular paying customer," Paul said. "I saw him at a low point in his life. Now he stands four inches taller. His smile lights up a room. He has his life back. I was able to help with that."

Paul comes from Coeur d'Alene. He lived on the outskirts while growing up.

"My parents weren't religious," he said. "My mother was from the South. My father was from Seattle. Both were science-minded and in medical fields. I did not grow up going to church.

"However, the Coeur d'Alene schools were not up to my parents' standards, so they sent me to St. John Vianney School in Spokane," he said. "I loved it! I gained faith there. I loved going to Mass. I loved the respect I saw at a Mass."

Paul believes he was led to St. John Vianney. When his family moved to Hayden, he began attending public school, "where I got into mischief and trouble," he said. 

Trouble led him to the Mental Health Court in Kootenai County, under Judge John Mitchell. Paul credits the judge with helping him turn his life around.

Paul graduated from Lake City High School in 2006. While he did not want to continue schooling, he did.

He began peer counseling others with addictions through ACES Community Services, a mental health support center in Coeur d'Alene.

"I became an Idaho peer support specialist," he said. "As I counseled people, I saw changes in their lives. I did that for about a year but was not making enough money."

The brother of his girlfriend—later his wife—owned a barbershop and wanted to expand from two to four chairs. He suggested that Paul go to barber school and work with him.

Once Paul ran the numbers on income for barbers, he accepted the offer.

"I could make a living and still give back to the community," he said. "I could make my own hours and have time to help others.

"A barber is a counselor who can cut hair," Paul commented.

While he was in barber school in Coeur d'Alene, he saw a page on social media from British Columbia about an organization where people were cutting people's hair in an area that had many homeless people.

A husband and wife, Cameron and Jen Sterling, started it. They called themselves Street Thug Barbers.

"My heart sang at that point," Paul said.

When he finished barber school in 2017, he began working at Bulwark Barbers.

"I reached out to the nonprofit in Canada and said I wanted to be a part of it," he said. "They were hesitant. They suggested I try it first and see what I thought. Many people have tried this work and backed off.

"That's when I contacted Janet Brock at St. Vincent de Paul and began donating my time with them. Before that, I never felt like I was contributing or a benefit to the community," he continued.

"I had gone to a Catholic private school and learned about benevolence but had never before felt needed or found a place where my skills could be utilized for good.

He contacted the Sterlings again, reporting on his experience with St. Vincent de Paul.

"My chapter became the fifth Street Thug Barber chapter, Street Thug Idaho, after the original in British Columbia, and Portland, Ore., Ireland and Thailand.

"I was under the impression it would be a local chain," Paul said.  "Instead, this is like a family of seven or eight barbers who love what they do and go out to help in their communities. I love being a part of something bigger than myself."

Cameron and Jen created a logo for their nonprofit in which the word THUG has the letter T X'd out, so what is clearly seen is the word "HUG," and then the word "Life" underneath. Often, Street Thug barbers end up sharing hugs with those they serve, Paul said.

Cameron had been addicted to opiates. He called it a "runnin' and gunnin' lifestyle." In order not to lose his relationship with Jen, he turned his life around. That's when they created the logo.

"If people give more away rather than taking for themselves, they'll be in a better position overall," Cameron says.

Paul agrees. 

"Anybody is one situation away from being homeless or one decision away from changing for the positive," he said.

"My mother used to say, 'You can't run away forever. Life will catch up with your decisions,'" Paul added.

He and his family continue church involvement, attending Our Place in Hayden.

"God led me to barbering," he said. "I get to give testimony. I get to help people. I get to listen!

"I haven't taken new clients for maybe three years," he said. "I have the same clientele that I did when I started.  It's more than a haircut when relationships are built. I keep confidentiality. I never thought I'd develop the clientele that I have."

Since COVID has lifted, Paul mostly goes out to volunteer to cut hair at events on request, perhaps six or seven times a year, rather than going somewhere at a set place or time.

"People have to stay humble," he reflected. "Barbering keeps me humble. Everybody needs haircuts.

"I believe I was led to St John Vianney and Catholicism, so the purpose of my life has been steered into these avenues where God is present," he said.

"The majority of my life now is helping people. It's important. In today's world, people need that kind of help," Paul affirmed.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December 2023