Difference Makers: Building self-esteem and changing lives, one makeover at a time with Caroline MacGillivray

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      This weekly column features community-minded Vancouverites that are making a difference at a grassroots level.

      The idea that a new hairstyle or a foot rub could be life-changing might seem farfetched, but for the founder of a local organization that provides free makeovers and self-care services to people living in poverty, these simple acts have gone on to make big impacts.

      Caroline MacGillivray is the founder and executive director of Beauty Night, a Vancouver-based organization that she started 16 years ago, after a chance encounter with a woman she met while volunteering at a Downtown Eastside drop-in centre.

      “After a shower, she found a curling iron and asked if she could use it,” MacGillivray tells the Straight at a downtown coffee shop.

      Unable to lift her arms due to severe injury, and on the brink of tears, the woman tried but was unable to curl her hair. Not wanting the woman to become upset, MacGillivray offered to help.

      “I said I'd help, but I wasn’t going to promise I was any good at it,” she says, recalling the curls as being frizzy and twisting in opposite directions. Eventually, they settled on a French braid.

      “Afterwards, she gave me a big hug, and thanked me for making her laugh, even though we were laughing at how inept I was,” MacGillivray recalls.

      “Then she thanked me for making her feel human.”

      From that point on, her volunteering shifts went from focusing on providing meals, to answering requests for makeovers from different women at the centre.

      Though she continued to volunteer on the front lines for the next four years, and even joined the drop-in's board of directors, MacGillivray saw an opportunity for a completely new service that wasn’t being offered. 

      Since then, Beauty Night has partnered with over 50 local organizations, and as of the end of 2016, its volunteers have provided makeovers to 60,000 men and women throughout Metro Vancouver. It operates four nights a week in facilities in Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey, and New Westminster.

      Depending on the size of the hosting organization, Beauty Night volunteers—without which the organization could not operate—provide services to different numbers of people.

      Locations like the Ray Cam Community Centre provide space for up to 40 people, whereas other small first- or second-stage transition homes allow for eight to 12  participants.

      Upon arrival, guests sign up for things like haircuts, makeup application, manicures, pedicures, foot massages, and, since 2009, even acupuncture—something MacGillivray says she brought in as a way of supporting individuals who suffer from chronic pain.

      “Not all of our participants are dealing with addiction, but the one that are, are often dealing with pain, whether that’s physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual, and so I started looking at other things that could support them,” she says.

      She brings in traditional Chinese medicine practitioners to a select number of Beauty Nights for acupuncture per month.

      With the help of generous corporate partners and other organizations, she’s been able to offer even more to participants by holding special events.

      Local lingerie stores have donated bras and brought staff in to do fittings, and the UBC nursing program has come to do check-ups and run pap test clinics.

      She’s also recruited homeopathists, yoga instructors, and Chi Gong practitioners.

      Referencing an article published by a philosophy journal in 2008, MacGillivray touches on the notion of the power of the mind that many Beauty Night participants have been able to harness: when people see aesthetic changes within themselves, they start to believe other types of change are possible.

      “We have seen many women leave their abusers, and through those conversations, it’s been this domino effect, where, after chatting to these women themselves, our own volunteers have left their abusers, where no one had known what they were dealing with,” she says.

      MacGillivray is quick to connect these women with Battered Women’s Support Services.

      She's also helped connect a woman with her adult children, after they had aged out of the foster care system. 

      In even more situations, MacGillivray have seen participants hired for full- and part-time positions with Beauty Night Partners, like Smell This! Aromatherapy, while other partners, like Karma Teachers and a local hair academy, have donated scholarships. 

      She refers to more important data, this time from the John Hopkins Centre of Medicine, that reinforces the importance of an event like Beauty Night: People get 90 percent of their information from what they see.

      “Especially when we look in the mirror, I think it’s really important for us to feel good about who we are,” MacGillivray says.

      “And the piece that we don’t often talk about, but is so important, is that reintroduction of touch. With one out of every three women and one out of overy six men experiencing sexual violence before the age of 18, the makeover is a way to offer a healthy touch, in a trauma-sensitive area.”

      MacGillivray says that the men and women she gets to work with give as much to her as she gives to them.

      “It’s given me a lot of hope, and encouraged me to believe more in myself, which is important when I’m trying to help people build self-esteem and change lives,” she says.

      In the future, MacGillivray hopes to register Beauty Night as a corporate entity, so that she can add yoga as a more permanent service, while also being able to hire teachers and volunteers from within the Beauty Night circle.

      “What I love about it is that sense of community, People talk about some pretty serious stuff… but there’s just as much laughing and joy and friendship,” she says.

      “It’s is a place where people feel accepted, and with the Downtown Eastside, that often gets missed—but there really is a sense of belonging there. It’s really beautiful how people stand up for each other, and at Beauty Night, I see it ten-fold.”

      Know someone doing important work in your community? Message Amanda Siebert here