If you look good, you feel good.
That’s the premise behind a new program aimed at building foster children’s self-esteem. Desiree Cook founded the “I am you 360” program in November that provides foster families with beauty products and — more than that — an understanding of what personal turmoil can do to a child.
“(The kids struggle with) not having permanency, either physical or sexual abuse from biological parents, and on top of that (they) feel ugly,” said Cook, 47, a local hairstylist at Artistry Beauty Studios.“They are already a target (of bullying) because of their situation. When they are self-conscious about their appearance, what happens is, they stop focusing on their education. We want to empower (foster children) to reinvent themselves, feel liberated and not let their pasts define who they are.”
According to Arizona Department of Economic Security statistics, 10,803 children entered out-of-home care between October 2012 and September 2013. During that same time, the Child Abuse Hotline received 44,193 reports, the vast majority for neglect, according to the department’s semiannual report from last year.
Cook — who herself has struggled with low self-image, drug addiction, domestic violence and incarceration — empathizes with the kids she works with and has seen firsthand the positive impact having pride in one’s appearance can have. She recalls one young girl who came to see her a few times and always seemed to be down.
“She hates her hair and she is always sharing about how kids at school are always picking on her, and saying her hair smells and is nappy,” said Cook. “The little girl hated herself at 11, and it just hurt me so bad. Everything was going wrong in her life. When I first did her hair and put the tiara on her and took her to this full-length mirror, to see her smile come alive and her eyes perk up, it was like she had a glaze over her eyes.
“After seeing herself, she was just amazed and she couldn’t get off the mirror. She kept turning around in the mirror. It was like, all of a sudden, she was given life. Her grades went up and she is now making friends.”
Through collaborations with Child Protective Services and organizations like La Frontera Center and GAP Ministries, the local nonprofit has been providing resources to foster families and children in group homes, such as hair- and skin-care workshops and motivational seminars. Cook works with the children, showing how to care for their hair and giving them community-donated “empowerment bags,” which contain personalized skin- and hair-care items, personal-care tips, even handwritten notes meant to motivate.
Cook always emphasizes that things will get better.
“My goal is to continue work with them and let them know that they can trust me,” said Cook. “I am sure that a lot of them hear a lot of empty promises. So that (trust) is key. It is so rewarding when the girls see me again and continue the relationship.”