LAUDERHILL — When 6-year-old Z’Khaiya Harrison returns to school next week, she will not only be armed with new school supplies, but thanks to Essie “Big Mama” Reed and her volunteer group of cosmetology students, she will also sport a fresh hairstyle.
Big Mama – Team of Life, on Monday Aug. 17, visited Castle Hill Elementary at 2640 NW 46th Avenue in Lauderhill. Reed and workers for the non-profit agency were there to provide more than 100 students with school supplies, hair cutting and braiding, and snacks.
“The kids are really grateful when they open their bags,” Reed said. “I try to fill them with what they need; what they can’t afford.”
Big Mama added that she will “always do this because I know what it’s like to struggle when you have kids.”
The school supplies, which included book bags, pens, pencils, notebooks and paper, were donated by Office Depot, Dave’s Wholesale in Miami and private donors, according to Big Mama.
Big Mama did not disclose the donation amount.
The hairstylists were volunteer students from Sheridan Technical Center in Hollywood.
Castle Hill houses more than 700 students; more than 91 percent qualify for free and reduced meals benefits, based on their family income.
Thaddeus Smith, the school’s vice principal, along with Arthur Rose from the North Central Area Superintendent’s office, presented Big Mama with a certificate of appreciation from Castle Hill.
“She really deserves it,” Rose said. “She believes in community.”
Frances Fuce-Ollivierre, Castle Hill’s principal, said the school was grateful for Big Mama’s help.
“She does a lot for people in need. Today she provided tools for the kids that will help them become successful.”
Fuce-Ollivierre contacted more than 100 of Castle Hill’s families and invited them to take advantage of the donations and services.
“The principal called me on Friday,” said Marie Gerald, whose son Ervensley Fertillien is a student at the school. “It’s at least $10 to take him to the barbershop so he hasn’t had his hair cut all summer. This has saved me time and money.”
Seven-year-old Ervensley, a second grader, said that he “hates the barbershop” and “I never want to go if my mother is not there to help.”
A well-respected powerhouse in Fort Lauderdale’s west side community for more than 30 years, Big Mama is no stranger to hard times.
“Things were hard when my father left,” Brennan Reed, Big Mama’s 27-year-old son, shared. “I was about 9 at the time. We soon lost our house and were forced to sleep on the bare cement floor of my parents’ fish market. We did that for a few years. It was more than rough.”
Eventually things began to work out. Life in the fish market, then located at Northwest 19th Street and Northwest 9th Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, Brennan Reed said, “pushed my mother in the direction of giving. It’s a gift that can never be taken away.”
Brennan Reed described his mother as “a woman with a big heart who never leaves anyone out. Not everyone can make a commitment to others and keep it for so long.’’
Schazzard Blackburn, the volunteer student tasked with braiding Z’Khaiya’s hair, said this was her first time working with Big Mama.
“I just wanted to give something back,” she said. “Big Mama does so much. My helping out with the kids is just a small piece.”
An excited Z’Khaiya said she felt “cute” with her new hairstyle.
“I’m ready to go [to school] now and let people see,” she said.
Photo by Mychal McDonald. Ervensley Fertilien gets a haircut from Tai Huynh at the Big Mama – Team of Life giveaway on Aug. 17.