Cassandra Weller is a first year Development Studies student at the University of Newcastle
Cassandra Weller has helped set up a hairdressing training school in Ecuador to help women out of the poverty trap. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
A backpacking trip to South America proved a game-changer for Newcastle-based hairdresser Cassandra Weller. Friends have since dubbed her “the accidental philanthropist” because she came away from the experience wanting to empower the women living in poor communities in Ecuador by sharing her skills with them.
She hoped that by teaching them hairdressing skills and techniques, it would give them greater opportunities for employment and even the experience to begin their own businesses.
“I had always wanted to do some volunteer work while I was over there,” Weller says. “And then I met some people who were working on an empowerment program for women through an organisation called CENIT.
“I thought, ‘Wow – that’s something I would really love to do, but I’m just a hairdresser’. I wasn’t sure how I could help or what I could offer. But they said the women they work with want to become hairdressers. They see it as a profession just like a doctor or a nurse, and that CENIT actually wanted to set up a training centre for them, but they just had no one to do it. Most of the women I’m working with didn’t get a chance to go to school, and neither do their children.’’ – Cassandra Weller
Weller stayed in touch with her new friends, offering them advice and guidance regarding ways and means to set up the hairdressing school. But after returning to Australia, the idea just kept nagging at her.
“Before I knew it I was back over there in January, running a pilot program to test out whether a hairdressing school there would be viable, and it was,” she says. “I’m going back again in November for three months to implement a training program.”
Weller set up the not-for-profit With These Two Hands hairdresser-training project as a registered charity. She raised $8000 for the cause before returning to the El Camal community in the south of Quito, Ecuador, to do some research and run the two-week pilot program.
“It is a really poor area,” she says. “Most of the women I’m working with didn’t get a chance to go to school, and neither do their children. They work on buses, some of them are sex workers, some sell home-made chips and fruit and vegetables on the street. They don’t have anyone to look after their children, so their children have to go with them – plus the children are more useful begging, and helping to sell all the produce they have.”
Weller researched the local hairdressing industry, and discovered a lot of the hairdressers already trading weren’t certified. Most of the women she spoke to wanted to create small businesses and work home-to-home.
“The whole idea around this program is to educate the mothers so they can become good role models for their children, start their micro businesses going home-to-home, and then they can also afford to send their children to school,” she says.
January’s pilot program was a roaring success, with 30 women attending.
She said their attitude was “remarkable” and they were “really motivated” to learn.
Learn about the charity, the event and how you can contribute: withthesetwohands.com.au.