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Life-changing experience leads Minneapolis woman to offer free haircuts to homeless

The Gift: Kindness Goes Viral with Steve Hartman
The Gift: Kindness Goes Viral with Steve Hartman 43:53

A Minneapolis woman became inspired by a life-changing haircut she got when she was younger, and found a way to help others in her community look their best — even if they couldn't afford it.

Katie Stellar said growing up, her mother would cut her hair since she was one of six children. The home haircuts weren't the most stylish.

"My mom was awful and I have pictures to prove it. But I never really had any desire to do anything with my hair," she said.

That was until Stellar was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when she was 11 years old, which took a toll on both her body and her hair. She began losing her hair and eyelashes.

"I really didn't realize how important it was to me until I was losing it," she said.

Her mother, Julie Stellar, then searched for anything that might make her daughter feel just a little bit better. She decided to get her daughter a real haircut with someone who had their license.

For Stellar, the experience was life-changing. She credited the hair stylist for making her feel comfortable and safe throughout the appointment.

"What she did for me was she sat me down in this chair and talked to me as a person, not as an illness," Stellar said.

The experience lit a fire for Stellar. She herself became a hair stylist, but one with a mission — to make others feel the way she felt that day. She opened a salon, which led to the start of the Red Chair Project.

Steve Hartman interviews Katie Stellar, the founder of the Red Chair Project, as she offers free haircuts to the homeless. CBS News

Stellar said the idea behind the movement came as she was preparing to open her new salon. She always wanted red chairs in her salon and wasn't willing to compromise, but the opening of the salon was delayed, leaving her with a hoard of equipment in her house.

"I remember looking at the chairs and being, like, 'This is kind of a waste,'" she said. "Like, what if I stuck this in my car and went and offered haircuts."

Stellar said she wanted to offer haircuts to anyone who asked, as she's seen people in her community of downtown Minneapolis struggle with homelessness.

"I think Red Chair Project definitely kind of stemmed from that feeling of wanting to show up for people who might be struggling or being alone," she said.

Stellar would approach anyone she drove past and offer them a haircut. She said while some people politely turned down the offer, others were more than eager to get a fresh look, including a man called Beetlejuice.

"The one thing I crave more than anything after being homeless for so long and not having a significant other… it's just that closeness, just human contact," he said.

Heather Jacobs, who was once homeless and the leader of a makeshift homeless community, said Stellar would come around and ask if anyone needed a haircut. 

Katie Stellar hopes the Red Chair Project continues to inspire more stylists to give out free haircuts throughout Minneapolis — and beyond. CBS News

"The smiles on their faces are irreplaceable," said Jacobs, adding that it gave people something to look forward to.

Throughout Minneapolis, Stellar's Red Chair Project has inspired more stylists with more chairs to give more free haircuts. She said she's happy seeing other people carrying on the work she started.

"I've had somebody ask me like, 'Well, do you get kind of threatened when you see people doing it?'" Stellar said. "I'm like, 'No. Competitive kindness. That is my kind of competition right there. Outdo me. I dare you. Like, please!'"

For some, that touch of kindness can be life-altering, just as it had been for Stellar years earlier. CBS News tracked down the stylist, whose name is Amy White, to bring the two together for the first time since Stellar got her life-changing haircut.

White said she doesn't remember doing anything different during Stellar's visit, but remembered that she was special. Stellar believes that what White gave her that day was a gift.

"It's one of those things I can never repay," she said. "I can put it forward. How can I use my life to alleviate someone else's pain, even just for a moment?"

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