Pay it Forward: Curtis O’Neil

(Photo by Don Kadair)

Though his Line 4 Line program, a north Baton Rouge barber
is providing boys free haircuts, reading lessons and a mentor.

On the first Monday of each month, Curtis O’Neil opens the doors of his north Baton Rouge barbershop and makes a deal with elementary-aged boys: He’ll give them a free haircut—or a “fresh line” as he calls it—as long as the boys’ read a book aloud for the barbers.

“Reading is connected to every other subject,” says O’Neil, owner of O’Neil’s Barber & Beauty Salon, which is festooned with photos of black leaders such as Barack Obama, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. “If you’re scrubbing on reading, you can’t do nothing. Everything else is going to fall short.”

Through his Line 4 Line program, O’Neil and the barbers who volunteer help monitor the young boys’ reading skills, serve as mentors and encourage them to work hard at school. The north Baton Rouge native started the program in 2014 with Lucy Perera, who was coordinator of the Neighborhood Arts Project with LSU and now serves as director of learning innovation at the Knock Knock Children’s Museum. The program has been so successful that it has evolved into a nonprofit organization, which has grown from serving about 10 kids a month to more than 30.

“I’m busy with two, three different businesses and it’s never a problem for me to do this program. I was meant to do it.”

O’Neil is no stranger to lending a helping hand and trying to make a difference in the north Baton Rouge community, where he opened his business on North Acadian Thruway at age 23 in 2003. Aside from the barbershop, he also owns and operates a medical transportation business, Louisiana On Time Transportation, which brings elderly residents to and from medical appointments. Previously, O’Neil worked with the homeless in the area, which inspired him to work with children.

“I started seeing in the homeless that sometimes they’re too far gone. Sometimes, you’d feed them and they’d come back and break into your house,” says O’Neil, who would like to open a children’s group home one day. “I decided to focus on the little kids; try to help them and better their future.”

Despite the demands that come with owning multiple businesses, O’Neil says he always has time for the boys who participate in Line 4 Line.

“This program is really a gift from the Lord. It’s so easy,” he says. “I’m busy with two, three different businesses and it’s never a problem for me to do this program. I was meant to do it.”

O’Neil says it’s important for business leaders to get hands-on when helping kids so they can teach them what success really is and how much hard work it takes to achieve it. By interacting with kids and serving as a mentor, business leaders can inspire and motivate them.

“I’m enjoying the journey,” O’Neil says. “I’m just letting the Lord work with me and move me however he needs me to work.”