Dream of Kalamazoo helps adoption and foster families send kids to school with hairstyles held high

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.
Going to school with your hair undone, or poorly done, is not a lot of fun.
Lalonie Willhite remembers that from the years she spent in foster care, and later when she and her younger brother were adopted.
Lalonie Willhite says she was bullied when her foster parents were unable to fix her hair. Her new Dream of Kalamazoo Foundation tries to remedy that situation for other young people in cross-cultural adoptions.“I went through eight different foster homes when I was growing up,” she says. “… And my upbringing was rather difficult. So I would go to school after being in a home that they put me in for a week or two. My foster parents didn't know how to do my hair. So I would go to school with my braids sticking up, or my ponytail matted and stuck to my head.”
As a result, she was bullied and she bullied others “because I didn’t feel good about myself.” But her grade-school experiences set her on a path to becoming a hairstylist — and to want to bridge service gaps in the foster care and adoption systems.
Willhite and her younger brother were born in Chicago but were relocated to Kalamazoo at ages 5 and 4 and immediately placed in the foster care system here. They lived in foster homes as well as Family & Children Services’ homes for boys and girls before they were adopted at ages 8 and 7. Willhite is now 35. 
By the time she was in 10th grade, Willhite had become pretty good at styling hair. “And with me doing my hair and doing others’ hair, it turned into me making money doing it,” she says.
The Dream of Kalamazoo hair salon at 522 S. Burdick St. In downtown Kalamazoo is the starting point of a nonprofit foundation that provides free hair cuts and styles to children in cross-cultural families.Now she is trying to make sure other young people in foster and adoptive care – from kindergarten through high school – don’t have to head to class ungroomed. She started the Dream of Kalamazoo Foundation a year ago to accomplish that.
The foundation provides free hair care services to young people in foster care or adoptive families. That includes braids, locs, weaves, twists, and other styles, primarily for Black and Brown children whose parents are of another race.
Foundation volunteer Hananiah Hardin says, “The services the Dream of Kalamazoo Foundation provides are salon and barber shop services. So basically the foundation has different service locations in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek where … clients can get their hair done for free and their big brother, big sister, or foster parents can learn how to take care and do the child’s hair themselves.”
Lalonie Willhite says she was bullied when her foster parents were unable to fix her hair. Her new Dream of Kalamazoo Foundation tries to remedy that situation for other young people in cross-cultural adoptions.Willhite says, "Many families in the foster care and adoption system are racially diverse so the foundation educates caregivers on how to do their wards' hair by hosting classes. We also host courses for the children to teach them how to do their hair as well.”
She says the ultimate goal is for young people to feel good about themselves, to boost their self-esteem, and to help them avoid awkward situations in which they may be bullied. “If you look good, you feel good,” Willhite says.
One of the foundation’s goals is to provide a space where parents, young people and their families can feel comfortable and reach a point where “they won’t need the service because they know how to do their hair themselves,” Hardin says.
Lalonie Willhite, shown shampooing the hair of 12-year-old Emanuel Frye, learned how to style and cut hair when her foster parents did not know how.According to a statement by the Dream of Kalamazoo Foundation, “We contend that many mothers and fathers are fostering youth from different ethnicities, cultures, and backgrounds and need professional assistance in implementing good styling and hair care.”
Sara Frye says she thinks her 11-year-old daughter’s hair is beautiful. Grace’s hair is thick with tight curls like other girls in her native Uganda. But it is very different from the straight, blond tresses Sara and many other girls grow up with in Holland, Mich. So Sara is happy to get suggestions from Willhite about conditioning and styling her daughter's hair.
Frye is also glad to hear suggestions for the care and maintenance of the Afro twist hairstyle that her 12-year-old son Emanuel has been growing for the past few weeks. The twists are on the top of his head, and they are already long compared to the close-cut hair he has on the sides and back of his head.
Lalonie Willhite, left, discusses proper care for textured hair with Sara Frye. In the middle is Frye’s daughter Grace.“I’ve worked with their hair as their adopted mom ever since they were babies,” Frye says. “And then I would take them to a salon. I would find a salon in Holland.”
Since relocating to Kalamazoo, she says, “I’ve struggled to find the right salon. And then we found this.”
Referring to the Dream of Kalamazoo salon at 522 S. Burdick St. and its owner, Frye says, “Lalonie is amazing because she educates as well as performs professional service.”
The Dream of Kalamazoo hair salon at 522 S. Burdick St. has been the starting point of a nonprofit foundation that provides free hair cuts and styles to children in cross-cultural families.Frye says she was blessed to get some initial schooling in Black hair care when she and her husband Dale decided to visit Uganda and adopt Emanuel. He was less than a year old. But she knew there would be things they would have to learn. A year and a half after adopting Emanuel, they headed back to Uganda to adopt Grace, who was a relative of a woman who worked in a child placement organization there. Grace was 18 months old.
Frye considers the children miracles. And she thinks their hair is beautiful.
“We just keep a conversation open,” Frye says of her children and new hairstyles. “I really try to go with what they want and what they feel good with.”
Sara Frye was employed at Hope College before her family relocated to the Kalamazoo area about five years ago. They made that move to allow her husband to join a company here and continue his career as a product design consultant.
Grace Frye can look forward to a new school year with the help she and her family receive from Lalonie Willhite and here new Dream off Kalamazoo Foundation.“I think you’re doing great,” Willhite told Frye on a recent visit to Dream of Kalamazoo. She provided encouragement and advice a few days before Frye’s children returned to school.
Willhite says she started the Dream of Kalamazoo Foundation to expand the help she was already providing to foster and adoptive parents. The effort now includes other hair stylists and barbers who are reimbursed for the services they provide.
Funding is provided by private individuals as well as businesses such as IHS Distributing and philanthropic organizations such as the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, The Battle Creek Community Foundation, and The Dollar Difference. The foundation pays hair care professionals the standard fee they charge anybody to do a haircut or perform other services. It also pays for hair care products, marketing materials, educational classes, and many other things to keep the foundation running.
Lalonie Willhite, center, enjoys Funday-Sunday on Aug. 20, 2023, at Milham Park with assistant Zan Macon, left, and event planner Hananiah Frye, right. The fund-raising event provided free activities for foster and adoptive families.Although Willhite estimated that she has provided services for several years to lots of young people who are in the foster care/adoption system, she did not have data on how many families have participated thus far in the foundation’s program, or how many hair services are provided each week.
The other service locations, whose hair care professionals have adopted Willhite’s vision include Blends By Dre at 118 W. North St. in Kalamazoo; China Pierré The Female Barber, also at 118 W. North St.; Samson’s Barber Shop at 254 E. Michigan Ave. in Kalamazoo; Braids By Brie at 5046 Gull Rd. in Kalamazoo; and Wake Up Ready at 2510 Capital SW in Battle Creek.
Hardin, who is an event organizer and marketing specialist who works at Black Magic Media, says he learned about Willhite’s generosity to foster/adopted youngsters when he visited her shop as a customer several months ago. He helped her raise funds to benefit the foundation and call attention to the need for such services by organizing a Sunday-Funday event on Aug. 20, 2023, at Milham Park. The event included free food, ice cream, a dunk tank, face-painting, arts and crafts, races, and other activities.

Hardin’s company Black Magic Media focuses on helping organizations and artists put on events by trying to provide everything they need. That includes music, catering, recruiting volunteers, photography, and promotions.
Willhite has been in business as a hairstylist for about 11 years. She is the mother of three boys, ages, 14, 10, and 6. She sells a line of hair care products called Hydr8 Organics (on sale in Walmart.com, Amazon, Bread & Basket BC, Kalamazoo Hair & Beauty, and Kali Beauty Supply). And she authored a book in 2017 to motivate and inspire others. It is titled “I’ve Already Made It — Breaking Barriers Through Listening, Prayer and Faith.”
Lalonie Willhite, shown shampooing the hair of 12-year-old Emanuel Frye, learned how to style and cut hair when her foster parents did not know how.“This is all very new and very fresh,” Hardin says. “It has also been a great experience learning her (Willhite’s) story, about the foster care system, and also being able to gather up a lot of different people and bring together a lot of different talents and organizations to bring awareness to a situation.”
The Dream of Kalamazoo Foundation will celebrate its first anniversary on Oct. 20, 2023.
Willhite says the foundation is important because of the cultural difference between fostering and adopting.
“It is good to understand the different cultures that you bring into your home and how to care for their hair,” she says. “If you don’t care for specifically African-American hair, then you have to deal with (young people) being judged, bullied, and having low self-esteem. You have to deal with them not showing up appropriately in different spaces like school or work.”

She says in those situations, as a young person, you cannot give your all "because you have to spend time defending yourself based on the way you look when you should really just have to focus on being a kid."

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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.