Sarasota hairstylist Dede Caldwell has always had a place in her heart for at-risk women. She began her hairstyling career at age 30 and has owned several salons, including one in San Diego, where she learned about the number of women and children living on the streets.
"A census in the '90s showed 5,000 women and children lived on the street in San Diego," says Caldwell. "It was in my heart to serve these women with the talents I have." She took a sabbatical from her salon and partnered with Union Rescue Mission in California to cut women's hair for free.
This act of service has stayed with Caldwell throughout her career in Sarasota for the past 16 years. She most recently worked at a salon on Osprey Avenue, which closed temporarily in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. When the salon re-opened, Caldwell found that her affluent clients had disbanded because they were so accustomed to getting weekly appointments.
"The thought of not getting a hairstyle was inconceivable," says Caldwell. "This made me think of the hundreds of women in our city, Covid or not, who would never have access to this kind of self-care because of their financial and lifestyle situations."
That's when the Beauty Bridge Foundation was born. Caldwell's daughter, Saasha Plefka, established the foundation as a 501(c)3 and has been running the financial side. In August 2021, the foundation opened a physical location opened on Central Avenue in downtown Sarasota. In September, the Beauty Bridge Foundation hosted two open houses for local organizations to see how the space will serve the community.
"I designed the space myself," says Caldwell. "I wanted it to have a light, feminine feel. It should feel like a safe space for women to come and be themselves, receive help and feel as beautiful as they look."
While Caldwell has yet to see nonprofit clients, she is seeing for-profit clients in the space to help raise funds. Several local organizations have connected to try and partner, including Harvest House, Second Heart Home, Selah Freedom, SPARCC and the Resurrection House.
In addition to Caldwell, there are three volunteer hairstylists giving their time to cut and style hair. Supplies like hair dye have also been donated through private gifts. Caldwell would like to get more volunteers to serve the nonprofit clients, who are booked by appointment only through the partnering social service.
Caldwell and Plefka hope that Beauty Bridge will become a national foundation with several participating salons around the country. Caldwell says that beauty is a force, and believes that even when a woman is given all the tools she needs—career support, education, housing, counseling—they don't matter until she feels confident in herself.
"People say that beauty is frivolous and not really important," Caldwell says. "But if a woman feels beautiful, she behaves differently, with more self-esteem."