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Sunshine Salvos’ free haircut ministry transforming lives in style

Phuong and Sham Johnston hard at work at their dedicated hairdressing salon stations, helping locals out with a free haircut. Photos: Lerisse Smith

Something quite special is going on at Melbourne’s Sunshine Salvos that is making people’s hearts sing – and it involves lots of hairspray, hairdryers, hairbrushes and hair mists. When Captain Phuong Reynolds decided to put her hairdressing talents to great use and offer free haircuts to her beloved community, little did she know the simple gesture would profoundly uplift people’s lives, as Salvos Online writer LERISSE SMITH discovered.



It was a day that Phuong will never forget.


While she busily organised her treasured hair trolley full of sprays, combs, scissors and neck dusters for yet another salon session with her beloved community, a mum walked into the church with her son. She asked for a much-needed haircut.


“I still remember the mum saying to me it had been seven years since she had a haircut!” Phuong recalled.


“You can’t believe it at first, and then you can, because between providing food for her children, paying rent and then everything else, going to a hair salon and getting regular haircuts for herself and her children is something very, very expensive and often out of reach.”


Not being able to afford a haircut is a common theme both Phuong and her husband, Captain Colin Reynolds, hear from their community each time they run the free haircut ministry alongside the church’s community meal on the last Friday of each month.


But giving dignity to all those who walk through their church doors on Devonshire Road is top priority for Phuong, Colin and their dedicated teams of volunteers. 


“We see the holistic person for who they are,” Colin said.


“Phuong is doing hair for people who haven’t had a haircut in two or three years because they just can’t afford it. So, it is super important for us here at Sunshine Salvos to make sure that we’re doing everything to treat the whole person with dignity, to honour them, and to ensure that not only are we giving food and material aid but also helping them feel lovely about themselves too. We want them to be healthy on the inside and feel beautiful on the outside.” 

Captain Phuong Reynolds and volunteer Sham Johnston prepare for a day in the Sunshine Salvos salon.

Visit the Sunshine Salvos on their community meal day, and you’ll find two hair salon stations set up in the church foyer, one for Phuong and her hairdressing friend, Sharon, while free takeaway cooked meals along with an assortment of fresh food parcels welcome people as they walk through the front door.


Phuong’s journey to making all people feel beautiful began as a young girl in her country of origin, Vietnam, where her parents owned a hair salon. They inspired her to take up the profession, and soon, she found a love for helping others by transforming them with a new hairdo.


When Colin and Phuong became Corps Officers at Sunshine Salvation Army nine years ago, Phuong did not hesitate to use her gift and talent to help meet the needs of her community with something practical and what she knew best. Hence, her hair ministry was born.


“People were coming for the food parcels and would comment about needing a haircut,” she said. “So, I just had a passion to provide free haircuts and asked a hairdressing friend to help out, too. I remember the first thing I did when I came to Sunshine was to buy a very big mirror. Then came the chair, then the table.”


Since then, the free haircuts have taken off. There’s often a line of people patiently waiting to sit in an area allocated for those wanting a new hairdo. And her ministry has impacted countless people.


One gentleman spoke of how Sunshine Salvation Army's practical and emotional support greatly assisted him in navigating complex life issues.


“I have mental health issues and social anxiety,” he remarked. “It would just be too much for me to go into a hairdressing salon. But I feel comfortable here and so grateful for the service. Getting a haircut here has helped me feel better about myself. I feel bad constantly asking for help, but buying food has been so tough. I can’t handle being broke. When you go to the shops and see the bill at the end, it’s scary. A hundred dollars used to fill a trolley, now it only pays for a few things.’’


As The Salvation Army Australia’s only Vietnamese-speaking corps officer, Phuong also has the ability to communicate with the Vietnamese community in their native tongue, especially as Melbourne’s biggest Vietnamese population is located in the city’s west, her region.


Two huge mirrors and tables accompany comfy chairs in the dedicated salon spaces along with the bevy of essential tools, including an assortment of big and small scissors, high-powered hairdryers, and the all-important neck duster to equip the two hairdressers. A friendly smile is also guaranteed.


Going, going, gone! A young community member goes from a full head of hair to a tiny green ponytail at the back … one of the fun requests Sunshine Corps Captain Phuong Reynolds receives as part of her free haircut ministry to the local community.  

Fun, weird, and strange haircut requests have included creating striking mohawks and shaving one side of someone with long hair. And when it comes to the most requested cut, men who want their hair cut short and beards trimmed top the list.


“Cutting a man’s hair and trimming a beard can give a fresh new look and make them look younger!” Phuong exclaimed.


“I also went to a special accommodation home of a corps member as her electric wheelchair was broken, and she desperately needed a haircut for a wedding.”


A listening ear has proved essential for the outreach ministry, with locals often letting down their defences.


“People often share their life’s journey and tell you what’s going on with their life,” Phuong said. “They want someone to listen. It’s important I listen to make the connection. Sometimes, we refer people to other services to help them struggling with a range of personal life issues where they need more help. And we always welcome people to our church, too, plus our monthly women’s group.”


Practical help with food parcels accompanies those who have their hair done. Trays of fresh vegetables and fruit welcome people, while about 300 to 400 takeaway meals are served. The favourite is most definitely the homemade Vietnamese fried rice made by the church volunteers.


Assisting the corps with their food relief service is the Alex Makes Meals organisation, which donates 170 packaged healthy meals weekly, Oz Harvest and Brimbank Council. Pets of the Homeless also donate dog and cat food on a monthly basis. These essential products for many community members who struggle to cover the cost of pet food are also distributed on Fridays.

The local community in Sunshine taking part in the corps’ food parcel ministry. The corps also runs a community meals program.

As for the future of cutting people’s hair, Phuong plans to continue using her special pair of scissors for a long time to come along with her hairdressing colleagues who help out each month. They love serving their community and thrive on making people happy.


“It’s so rewarding that people feel very happy after getting their hair done,” she said. “You see the smile on their face and can see the difference before and after they have their hair done. You know you are lifting their spirits and helping them feel confident, to feel good about themselves. And that makes me feel happy. There’s nothing better than making people feel good, to make them feel better. I’m so very blessed to do something to help people.”


And when it comes to talking to locals about God, Phuong and her husband keep it simple.


“We (Colin and I) are ministers and explain to the people what The Salvation Army is and what they do. To have a healthy community and to transform people inside and out is what Colin and I love to do,” she said.


“We believe we are all created in the image of God – and ultimately, we want people to know that.”

The Sunshine Salvos church foyer ‘salon’ in full swing.



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