Pemberton described the glow he saw in people’s faces after a haircut. He felt it was brought on more by the human connection than the haircut. PHOTO COURTESY OF KYLE PEMBERTON


How giving free Haircuts out of a livable bus led to opening a barbersHop in big sky

One way to look at a hairstylist or a barber is to see them as bartenders—they hear all your secrets and stress, and it is kind of their job to keep it confidential, at least from the people it would matter to. The other way is to see them as a source of physical and emotional connection.

Kyle Pemberton, owner of the recently opened Man of the Woods barbershop in Big Sky, graduated from barber school in Boise, Idaho in 2017. He worked with youth with special needs through a horseback riding program when he was younger, and this translated into his clientele as a barber.

“It’s an often-missed niche that people get intimidated by,” Pemberton said.

He started Sensory Sundays at the shop he worked at in Boise that were especially for individuals with different needs. The shop was closed, and Pemberton could adjust the sound and lighting to make it comfortable for each client. He described following some of his customers around the shop, cutting just one hair at a time, if that was the need.

“And it kind of took off,” he said.

He described the special needs community in Boise as being pretty tight-knit, and families began referring him to other families. Eventually, a local news station got hold of the story and made a video of Pemberton performing his services that went viral. He started getting requests to travel.

Traveling led him and his young family to southwest Montana, first. Pemberton and his wife, Jasmine, found out they were having a baby boy and wanted to start a family in Bozeman. The idea of traveling to provide haircuts to those without the means to get one themselves did not fade away with this first location change.

Pemberton created a nonprofit called The Art of Now and the couple restored a bus to serve as a movable tiny house.

For eleven months, the couple, their toddler and 70-pound dog traveled around the country and offered free haircuts and hygiene bags—drawstring backpacks full of basic hygiene products like toothpaste and undergarments—to those in need. Other nonprofits and churches in Bozeman supported the bags with Bibles, boots or even entire bags of a similar idea that were already full. Pemberton estimated 300 haircuts and 1,000 bags were given out during their bus living experiment.

“Living in a converted bus, you meet a lot of interesting people,” Pemberton said.

The hygiene bags and a cup of coffee to people sitting on a street corner were the introduction, in a sense. The Pembertons would talk to homeless individuals, learn their story and their struggles and eventually offer a free haircut.

“The more we got into it we realized it was just about connecting,” he said. Money and offerings were helpful, but what people really needed was human connection.

As this endeavor progressed, people on social media started disparaging the family for having too much fun and not working enough. People started questioning their intentions and how they were funded.

“We just hoped that if we go into it with good ambitions and pure hearts and we’re just doing it because we know that people need the help, then we’ll be taken care of,” Pemberton said. He explained he is good at saving money and working to support his plans, which is what led to the bus purchase and means for starting the nonprofit. Churches tended to be more receptive of their mission.

“It got tricky, and then Covid hit and we had to come back to Bozeman to make money,” Pemberton said. The consequence of a pandemic is that people are less receptive to letting you into their space, and with physical and emotional connection being Pemberton’s philosophy for the nonprofit, Covid was a major roadblock.

One small benefit of Covid was the rise in value of the family’s bus, thanks to those looking to go off-the-grid, which they eventually sold and used the money to start Man of the Woods. The couple got a small apartment in Bozeman, much more suitable to Pemberton’s six-foot-seven stature.

The nonprofit is on a bit of a hiatus, but Pemberton hopes to staff the barbershop in Big Sky and turn his attention fully to the nonprofit, figuring out the financial side of things. He hopes to eventually attribute 5-10% of sales from haircuts in Big Sky to the nonprofit and start a grant program for trade schools.

“I like to just go for it, you know? I’m not scared of failure. I think failure is a learning opportunity and if I don’t take the opportunity to help other people then who’s going to?” Pemberton asked.

Man of the Woods is open Tuesday-Friday from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. If interested in making a donation to The Art of Now, contact Pemberton through the barbershop website.

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