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A barber who offers so much more than a haircut: Meet Waverly Willis

Formerly homeless and once an addict, Willis wants his barbershops to be a place for community and conversation.

CLEVELAND — Sometimes in life, we need a reset. For East Cleveland native Waverly Willis, that moment came two decades ago - as he hit rock bottom.

"I survived off eating out of the dumpster behind Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was the guy downtown picking up the cigarette butts off the ground in front of Greyhound," Willis recalled. "I was the guy downtown, begging you for change. I was the guy that was sleeping on the greats coming up with the scene."

But Waverly found help - at Y-Haven - a homeless shelter where they helped him turn things around.

"That's where they helped me with my mental health, with my drug and my severe, alcohol addiction and homelessness."

But before a life on the streets, Waverly was a gifted football star at Shaw high school. He even attended to Kent State on a scholarship, but too much partying and not enough studying led to Willis' life spiraling out of control. His lifelong friend Eric Hills has seen it all.

Credit: Waverly Willis
Waverly once had a promising future in football, before struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.

"I've known Waverly since 1992. He was a college student. You know, we had good times...and then I've known him when he was down," he said. "It's just a testimony to believing in yourself, seeking the guidance of higher power, and just, [the idea that you can] make up your mind and you're gonna do better."

Hills says, he now he watches in awe as Waverly uses his story as a cautionary tale for others in the community in need of help.

"He just has a heart for the community, trying to help anybody. He [will] help people get their job referral or whatever resources they need to stay in a situation that's good for them. And he, he just gives like all the time."

And he gives it inside his barbershops. After becoming sober Waverly went to barber school and now owns two Urban Kutz Barbershops where he gives haircuts, but more importantly, life advice to anyone who will listen.

"When I first got into recovery, I used to be ashamed of [my journey]. When I would go to my AA and NA meetings, I was sit in the back of the room and try to hide," he recalled. "After I started being encouraged to share my story. I noticed that people would start to open up and a high percentage of them had been going through the same thing or something very similar."

But what started as one-on-one talks about life during haircuts has evolved into something much bigger.

"We never promised to have solutions for anybody's issues or problems," Willis said. "What we do promise is a nonjudgmental ear. As you know, I'm in recovery and in recovery, we have a thing - and that is a problem shared is cut in half."

Waverly has organized group sessions that meet at the barbershop on Saturdays. They're informal gatherings, where anyone who wants to come shows up to talk and share their problems.

"Waverly is a breath of fresh air," said friend and client Zearatus Perry. "You know, I probably would come see him for a haircut every other day for some free advice if I could. But when you sit in Waverly's chair, you know, you're in the hands of not only a great barber, but a great person."

You can learn more about Waverly's journey and how to connect with him directly at WaverlyWillis.com.

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