Getting up at 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning for anything other than heading to an amusement park isn't something most 12-year-olds would be interested in. Gina Mertz counted herself among most 12-year-olds when her dad was leading a ministry group to prepare and hand out food to their local community of people experiencing homelessness.

"I remember not really wanting to do it at first. I mean, Saturday mornings? But once I started going, I was hooked," she recalls. "Watching my dad interact with these people was incredible. He had an ease about him and a beautiful way of connecting."

She continued volunteering in this way with her local church throughout high school and beauty school, as she trained to become a licensed hairstylist and makeup artist. As an adult, she and her family began waking up early on holidays to help distribute food to others, eventually using her desire to help people and her skills in her profession to found her nonprofit, Project Beauty for All, which provides free haircuts and beauty and hygiene products to people at homeless and domestic violence shelters.

Mertz, 48, lives in Carlsbad, Calif., with her husband, Steve, and they have two daughters, Alexis and Catalina. She took some time to talk about her work, and what it's taught her about how to see others.

Q: Tell us about Project Beauty for All.

A: Project Beauty for All is an organization that assists homeless individuals and victims of domestic violence with something as simple as a haircut and hygiene products. I also provide clothing when it is donated. I started it in 2016. ... Although the inception of the nonprofit was in 2016, I've been doing this kind of work since I was 12 years old.

The purpose of the organization is to reach out and truly help people in need. A haircut, a hug, food, or a smile may seem like small things, but they go a long way. If I can be a small glimmer of hope for someone and change the way they feel about their situation, I feel I have done something worthwhile.

Q: Why was this something you wanted to start?

A: I realized my efforts and passion needed to be spread around. Lots of people were asking how they could help, whether it was on a volunteer basis or monetarily. I realized that the work I had been doing since I was a young girl deserved a home, a name and some dignity. My organization is small and not well-known, and that's OK. My hope is to bring more awareness to others who usually judge homeless people and question victims of domestic violence.

Q: You mentioned that you started helping your church give food to people who were homeless when you were 12 years old. What did you learn about how to talk to and relate to others who have different life experiences than you had?

A: The first and most important thing is that people are people. We're all the same. Just because we are on different walks of life doesn't mean we are OK inside. It means we all have hearts, and we all feel. I learned not to say "good morning" to someone who has spent the night on the ground because it isn't a good morning for them. It sucks. I learned not to ask lots of questions, especially pointed or specific questions. A smile, a touch on the shoulder or elbow, are powerful; and I learned to look someone straight in the eye when they speak because they deserve that.

What I love about Carlsbad ...

What I love about Carlsbad is that you can ride your bike just about anywhere, park it, and walk all around. We have a good selection of restaurants to choose from, so dining out is never a disappointment.

Q: What compelled you to begin giving free haircuts to elementary school kids in lower-income neighborhoods while you were in school to become a hairstylist?

A: Well, to begin with, I needed hours of practical work! I got tired of waiting around for people to come in and get a $5 haircut from a student. My mom was a teacher at the time, and I asked her if the principal would let me give haircuts to the kids at her school. It was predominantly low-income, (Latinx) families and it seemed perfect for me. I showed up and there was a line out the door. The parents would tell my mother in Spanish how grateful they were to have a free haircut for their sons and daughters. It was hard work, but I was so fulfilled after that. It felt so good to see the smiles on the faces of children and their parents. I continued doing this for years, wherever and whenever I could.

Q: And once you became a licensed stylist, what was the path to providing free haircuts at local domestic violence and homeless shelters?

A: It began shortly after we moved to Carlsbad. My husband's aunt asked if I would like to join her at the Community Resource Center in Encinitas one weekend. They were fixing up a cottage at a domestic violence shelter for a woman who was about to move in with her two kids. After spending several hours there, I felt compelled to ask the director if the residents would ever want an occasional haircut, and if they would even allow me to come do this for them. She immediately answered, "yes." I've done it on a monthly basis since 2010. After that, I walked into or called various shelters around North County asking if they would like to have free haircuts for their residents. Everyone always said yes.

Q: Why do haircuts and beauty/hygiene products matter?

A: Beauty/hygiene products and haircuts are a luxury. Many of us don't see it that way because they are relatively cheap things for most of us to buy and they are major consumables for us. Our hair grows half an inch a month, and for anyone who can't afford a haircut, long, messy hair is a major nuisance. These products matter because many women are forced to leave their homes with nothing. When you have two or three kids in tow and you need sunscreen, lotion, shampoo or conditioner, but don't have the money to buy them, it is devastating. Men need haircuts all the time and children whose mothers are in shelters need haircuts, and they aren't cheap anymore; they're expensive and I'm happy to give them for free. Think about how good you feel when you have a new look or a fresh cut? It's wonderful, it's personal, and it makes you feel cared about. I want this for everyone.

Q: Your website also says that your organization is empowering people in need to realize their self-worth and potential through the services you provide. How do your services empower others? What does this empowerment look like?

A: I gave a haircut to a woman one time whose hair was down to her waist. She asked me to cut it short, up to her ears. When I asked her if this was something she had thought long and hard about, she said "yes." I told her this was a very emotional thing for a woman to do and should not be a rash decision. She told me that her husband had used her hair to pull her to the ground; he told her that if she cut her hair, he would kill her. She didn't want it anymore, said she didn't need it, that she didn't want to be controlled anymore and that her long hair was a symbol of sadness and defeat. I cut her hair, and we didn't say a word for 30 minutes. When I finished, she cried. Then, her little daughter came into the room, and she cried. I cried. She swept her hands through her hair saying "no more, no more. It feels so good." I have dozens of stories like this from men, women and young girls. That's what empowerment looks like. Something as simple as a haircut can change someone's life and how they view themselves.

Q: Tell us about your upcoming Red Dress event.

A: This event began at my home in 2015. I wanted to invite my close friends and clients over for some holiday cheer for a good cause. I felt we should begin the holiday season with giving and gathering together as girlfriends, and asked everyone to wear red and to bring their gently used beauty products. That year, 30 women attended. It continued to grow over the years and the event moved to hotels where we had vendors selling their products with the proceeds going back to Project Beauty for All. Now, this event to raise money for local shelters that support people experiencing homelessness and domestic violence in North County will this year be held at the home of a friend of mine in Encinitas, where guests can learn about the work of our nonprofit while they shop, network, eat and dance the night away at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 14.

Q: What is the best advice you've ever received?

A: My dad told me never to underestimate the power of a smile given to a stranger, and to remember that every person was a child once who was loved deeply by their mother, and no matter where they are or how they got there, we must treat everyone with the utmost kindness and respect because all humans deserve that.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I was a competitive swimmer for many years. I swam in the San Francisco Bay in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, and I swam the 9-mile Maui channel with my swim team.

Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Spending it with my family at a concert at Humphreys by the Bay, and spending the night in Coronado and renting a boat to spend the day on the water, and eating at Il Fornaio, also in Coronado.

Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com

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