Stylist Whitney Benevedo’s skills aren’t just reserved for land. Often, she takes them to the high seas.
When she’s not working at Heritage Salon in Arroyo Grande, California, Benevedo volunteers for Mercy Ships on its Africa Mercy ship, providing cut and color services for the onboard crew of 450 people as the ship’s Crew Hair Stylist while the ship is at sea or docked off the coast of Africa.
“I have an amazing job [at Heritage Salon] that allows me to meet incredible people who inspire me to take on the world,” she says. “Volunteering is a way I can express my gratitude and pay my blessings forward. I also love to travel and I have always wanted to experience Africa. Mercy Ships marries those passions of mine.”
Mercy Ships is an international organization with a mission to increase access to healthcare across the developing world in the form of private hospital ships. According to a release, Mercy Ships works with host nations to help fill the gaps in healthcare systems, while serving the immediate needs of their population. Mercy Ships provides a variety of training opportunities for medical professionals (surgeons, nurses, anesthesia providers, administrators and community health workers), along with curative surgical interventions.
The organization helps people who would otherwise have no access to healthcare and health education. It provides surgical care for locals, sets up medical clinic and trains local medical teams on up-to-date techniques and sanitation, renovates local hospitals, hires locals to work on the ship during the time it is ported in their city, educates locals on dental hygiene and nutrition and more.
Benevedo has a “salon” onboard—a room equipped with a chair in front of one large mirror, and one shampoo bowl. Like any land-loving salon pro, she has her favorite products and styling/color lines, such as Davines and Olaplex, and as an Aveda-trained stylist, it holds a special place in her hairdresser heart.
Also like a stylist in a more traditional salon setting, Benevedo talks to her clients during services and gets to hear what is going on in their lives. But, she says, the stories she hears from the crewmembers on the ship (and the opportunities that can arise from them) are a bit different than those she hears in her California-based salon.
Because there is a hospital just two decks below her on-ship “salon,” Benevedo says it’s not uncommon for the conversation she has with the doctors and surgeons to turn to the procedures happening below their feet. Once, so far, she even had the opportunity to head downstairs and observe a surgery in the operating room.
The Africa Mercy ship isn’t just a hospital. Benevedo compares it to a tiny city, a city that needs workers of all trades—from teacher to baristas, to housekeepers, electricians, engineers and everything in between.
She cares for those medical professionals, teachers, engineers and other crew members who are performing the necessary tasks both on and off of the ship. Like for her clients at Heritage Salon, for crewmembers getting their haircut on the ship, when they look good, they feel good.
“Living on a ship can be challenging and a bit uncomfortable at times, so I provide one of the very few comforts/luxuries of home for many of the crew, which boosts moral and in turn creates even better care for the patients,” Benevedo says. “From the moment I stepped on board, I was met with enthusiasm and gratitude. It was a bit overwhelming. There had not been a hairstylist onboard for about nine months, so my arrival was highly anticipated. Every day, crew members tell me how important my job is and how grateful they are I am here. Even after four months, the general reaction after I cut someone’s hair is gratitude. I didn't realize how important my job on the ship would actually be.”
Benevedo hopes she will inspire others to volunteer or help on in their own communities (or around the world) as well.
“Hairdressers have such a unique platform to create a positive ripple effect in our communities,” she says. “Our clients look to us for not only fashion trends, but also lifestyle trends. If I am making socially responsible choices, it will inspire my clients to as well. It doesn't mean they will make big lifestyle changes like I've done, but they will volunteer at the local homeless shelter, donate blood or maybe help an elderly woman load her groceries in her car.
“I enjoy volunteering because makes me feel like I am doing my part to make the world go round. It’ not always the grand gestures and big events that make the world a better place—it’s the small choices we each make everyday to be socially conscious and responsible.”
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