Not just skin deep

By Jennifer Myers |  Read at Lowell Sun

LOWELL — Ruby-red lips. Smoky eyes. Voluminous platinum-blond locks.

“I like bright lipstick and people who are not afraid to wear bright lipstick,” says Jeryliz Montanez, 17.

“I love heels,” gushes Tandalaya Candelaria, 20. “Every color, every style. I can imagine every single outfit that would go with them.”

It is Tuesday afternoon, and Jeryliz, Tandy and five of their classmates from the Lowell Middlesex Academy Charter School are gathered around a lacquered table decorated with parking tickets and electric-meter parking receipts, and a counter plastered with photos of golden-age pinup girls, furiously ripping pictures out of magazines representing what they think is stylish and beautiful.

It is their first day of a four-week after-school beauty club run by Meghan Harrah and her staff at Eyeful Beauty on Middle Street, just a couple of doors down from the school. The program, and many others, have been made possible through Shannon Grant funding that the school has received from the Lowell Police Department over the past six years.

The Shannon Grant is a state-funded program providing funding for police departments to distribute to community organizations to prevent youth violence and gang activity.

Over the years, the Lowell Middlesex Academy Charter School, which provides a second chance at earning a high-school diploma to students who have dropped out or are at risk for dropping out of high school, has used the funds on a variety of programs, including outdoor volleyball at Middlesex College’s Bedford campus, bowling, basketball, the Project Adventure ropes course in Beverly and Brazilian jujitsu and basketball.

In addition to the recreational and team-building activities, LMACS Assistant Director Nancy Arseneaux says funding has been used to provide home visits aimed at keeping students in school, programs to help parents stay more involved in their children’s education, and guest speakers to discuss their experiences with drug addiction, family depression and gangs.

Iran Nazario, a former gang member from the Connecticut-based group Peacebuilders, recently gave the students a candid account of the time he spent in jail, advising them about the dangers of gang life and how to escape it.

“It is important for students to have alternatives after school to keep them from the draw of the streets,” says Mike Kaminski, who runs the LMACS after-school program. “It is important to get the kids out into the community and see there are people, like Meghan, who care about them and are willing to be so generous with their time. It really changes their outlook on life.”

And, Kaminski points out, Harrah, who volunteered to mentor the club and is not receiving a stipend, is a pretty impressive role model for this group of young women.

Harrah was studying photography and painting at the University of Nevada on Sept. 11, 2001. For her, the terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans were a call to action. She quit college and joined the Air Force.

As a member of the Air Force Security Forces, the Air Force’s military police, she spent a year in Iraq, running convoys with U.S. Army personnel and training newly selected Iraqi police officers. She came home with migraines and several hairline fractures in her ankles, the result of grenades being tossed under trucks she was accompanying.

Always an artist at heart, Harrah looked for a career to satisfy her passion and enrolled in cosmetology school. In May 2009, she opened Eyeful Beauty.

“I think this after-school program is awesome,” Harrah says. “The kids need a place to go after school, even if it is only an hour a week.”

“The mission of the school is academic, social and career preparation,” Kaminski added, “so this experience can teach the students about a possible career in the field, but also the importance of appearance and of making a good impression in a setting like a job interview.”

As for the girls, they remain engrossed in the magazines and are sharing a few of their favorite looks, glued to poster board.

Look carefully at what you have chosen, Eyeful Beauty stylist Shelley Robinson advises: bright red lips, pencil skirts. Old styles have come back into fashion.

“The things you are attracted to are things that have already happened,” she says, pointing to the red lips, hot in the 1940s and back in style today. “All of these trends cycle back after a while.”

Robinson also helps them understand why they are attracted to certain looks.

“I think she’s hot,” Marivanh Saengrat, 18, says when asked why she likes a photo of a platinum-blond Christina Aguilera wearing a deep purple outfit.

Robinson teaches the girls about the power of contrast. It is the “cool” tone of the singer’s blond curls against the “warm” tone of the purple that makes the look “pop” and draw a reader’s attention.

“Look at Meghan’s red hair,” Robinson explains, referring to Harrah. “If she wears a green sweater, her hair and makeup are going to pop 10 times more than if she wears all black.”

The students have all chosen to participate in the club for their own reasons.

Candelaria, who will graduate from LMACS this year and plans to study English or business at MCC in the fall, says she doesn’t usually wear makeup and figured this would be a great way to “incorporate something beautiful into my everyday routine.”

Kendra Hall, 16, of Dracut hopes to have a career in the beauty field some day and is interested in networking and learning everything she can about the business as well as different beauty techniques.

Tayla Kelly, 16, of Lowell wants to be a nurse, but she also has an interest in hair and makeup, often coloring and styling the hair of her mom and cousins.

Now the girls and stylists have gotten to know each other. The fun begins.

Harrah gives them their marching orders. On Tuesday, they are to arrive at the salon wearing makeup the way they usually apply it. The experts at Eyeful Beauty will critique it and give them tips to better accentuate their features. The girls will then be taught how to curl their hair.

“Next week, everyone is going to leave with big, gorgeous, fluffy hair,” Harrah announces.

But there is a twist: The following week, the girls are charged with arriving for class having curled their hair themselves using what they have learned. On the last day, there will be a runway walk, as the girls use what they have learned to glam themselves up.

“Every Tuesday, I want to see you looking fabulous,” Harrah says. “We are going to show you why it is important to have confidence and how to use it.”