Turn Your Head and Coif

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Women put their heads in Donna Harpe’s hands. Now they entrust her with their health, too.

Harpe, a hair stylist who manages Per Se, a beauty salon located on a block of cozy specialty stores in East New York, has taken on a unique public health role in her neighborhood.

Per Se is one of 11 salons and barber shops in Brooklyn participating in a health education program sponsored by the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health (AAIUH). Each month, different preventive health messages–like information about prostate cancer or sexually transmitted diseases–are distributed to salons and barber shops in neighborhoods with historically poor access to health services. East New York is a good example: A recent poll showed that 50 percent of the women in that section of Brooklyn have no health insurance.

“A lot of people don’t know about these subjects until they are brought up here,” Harpe says. “They don’t know the risks they’re taking.”

The program sprang from a 1994 Penn State study that documented how African-American beauty salons and barber shops are important social institutions in communities, serving as extended families for customers and providing a strong influence in their lives.

“I’ve been coming to Leon for advice for years. I listen to him,” says Kenneth Foy of his barber Leon Fields, who runs East New York’s Black Success Barber Shop, also involved in the health education program, which began in September 1996.

The men’s shops that participate are designated “Different Shades of Fade.” The women’s salons are dubbed “Black Pearls.”

AAIUH project director Rose Savage and other workers scout potential shops, then distrib-ute pamphlets and videos to store managers. The shops screen informational shorts instead of the usual day-time talk shows throughout the day, and booklets with the latest hair styles share shelf space with brochures about nutrition and breast cancer detection.

At the end of each month, an expert such as a nurse or Board of Health official visits the shop to make a presentation and answer audience ques-tions.

“It’s an absolutely wonderful program,” says Georgia Petgrave, a stylist at Per Se who credits the program with saving her life. Petgrave found out about her high blood pressure when she was tested at a Black Pearls- sponsored screening. Since then, Petgrave has kept the condition under control with medication.

AAIUH director Ruth Browne says that the program has reached over 6,000 people. They plan to expand in New York and have sparked interest from organizers in Los Angeles and Chicago.

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