When 44-year-old Robert Cradle opened his Odenton, Md., barbershop, he simply wanted to cut hair. That was all before his neighborhood grooming service became his life mission.

In 1991, I opened my first barbershop: a modest office space above a pizza parlor. It was directly across from Fort Meade, a U.S. military base where hundreds of Army personnel—and potential clients—resided. So in the following decade, my shop grew from a one-man operation to a flourishing business that included five barbers. That’s when I got an idea.

Fort Meade had opened a homeless shelter called Sarah’s House on its premises in 2000. When I met the shelter’s volunteer coordinator, she mentioned that her residents, mostly women and children, were too poor to patronize local hair salons. I’d been looking for some way to give to the community, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. So I bought a ballot box and labeled it with a sign that read “Haircuts for the Homeless.” I turned it into a collection box and placed it at the front of my store so my customers could throw in a couple dollars. Within a month, that pot of cash totaled a couple hundred bucks—enough for me to pay one of my barbers to visit the homeless shelter and provide free haircuts to about 100 people. With the help of an attorney, I immediately formalized the effort into a charitable organization that I call Rob’s Barbershop Community Foundation, Inc. (rbcf.com).

Over the next two years, the once-a-month service became bimonthly, and I eventually collected enough donations to begin offering haircuts at three homeless shelters in the area. Sometimes, I’d simply send a barber to the shelter or connect female homeless residents with local stylists; other times, the shelter would arrange for a busload of its residents to come to my shop. Once they arrived, we took them in the same way we would any client—only the pay for their services came straight out of the collection box.

As I interacted with the homeless, my view of them shifted. Most didn’t fit the stereotype a lot of us have of them as lazy and irresponsible. I began to see how easy it is to become homeless, especially if you’re already living close to the economic edge. In some cases, all it takes is rooming with someone who doesn’t pay his or her share of the rent, which can lead to eviction for both. Medical expenses, loss of work, personal injury—all can become reasons that someone is suddenly homeless. As I listened to the stories of all those who sat in my barber chair, I didn’t just cut their hair; I developed compassion for them. They found themselves in difficult circumstances, just like any of us could.

In 2003, I made the choice to take my charity to another level. I sold my barbershop so I could manage the nonprofit full- time. I had a list of personal reasons for wanting to do so, but there was one main reason: I wanted a job with a purpose. Offering free haircuts—along with a lot of hope and encouragement—gave me that sense of purpose and fulfillment. To prepare for the mission, I took courses in nonprofit management and fundraising and read everything I could find on those topics. I also did volunteer work with other nonprofits so I could learn what to expect and how to sidestep mistakes.

That training proved invaluable in helping me to make the organization impactful. Since its inception, we’ve given a total of 13,543 free haircuts to a combination of men, women and children of every racial background. Of that total, 1,755 have reported that after using our grooming services they were able to go on job interviews with a clean and neat appearance, which can make all the difference in whether a person can land a position, earn income and transition back into a home or apartment. I’ve also expanded our services. Using generous donations to the charity, I’ve partnered with local shelters around Baltimore and Annapolis, Md., to install and operate barbershops on their premises. Once we’ve set up a shop, I train some of the shelter’s residents to cut hair.

Four years ago, I got a call from the staff at a group home—they’d just taken in 10-year-old Black girl who’d been sexually abused. When I saw her, I understood why they’d asked for my services: Her hair was all over her head. I could hardly even get a comb through it. Once I’d untangled her hair and styled it, she gave me a hug, a big smile and two words I’ll always cherish: thank you. That child didn’t know it, but her gratitude that day was a gift to me—one that I’m working to pass on to our nation