Simmone Kilgore '13 witnessed her future career in action as a child. She just didn't realize it.
“I remember being a kid in a salon with women, and I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and the laughter and the camaraderie. I saw women crying and praying and supporting each other,” Kilgore says. “What I was most attracted to, which I didn't know at the time, was psychology. I just wanted to feel that way all the time and I loved the transformation — outwardly, but also inwardly — when a woman left the salon, how she felt.”
In sixth grade, Kilgore wrote in her school yearbook that she would one day own a salon and become a therapist. She did just that, earning a business degree, opening her own salon and becoming a licensed counselor. Life has come full circle: Kilgore trains barbers and hair stylists in Milwaukee in how to spot mental health problems in their clients and how to direct them to help.
“When I talk behind the chair, I've learned so many things from so many men and women about life, from recipes to raising children to how people hold on in distress,” Kilgore says. “But I've always been a learner and always been extremely curious about the human experience.”
Drawn to help
Kilgore grew up in Beloit, which she remembers fondly as a small and diverse town. Like her parents (her late mother taught at technical college and her father was a substance abuse counselor), she found herself drawn to helping people.
“I've always had that sense of community my entire life,” she says. “I've often tried to drop that thing off — to not have it. But it's just innately a part of who I am. I don't fight it anymore.”
Kilgore earned an associate degree in cosmetology, then went to work in the business. In 2004, she earned a bachelor's in business from Concordia University and opened Beauty Masters, a salon on Milwaukee's northwest side. The business provided her with the opportunity to explore psychology, through the connections she forms with clients and the safe space she provides for people to share their experiences.
In 2011, Kilgore enrolled in Alverno's master of science in community psychology program to achieve her goal of becoming a licensed counselor. She recalls how at Alverno, “I loved how I could be quiet and take in information from others. I'm just so curious about how we all can be at one space, see the same thing unfold and interpret it differently. It's just delicious for me.”
Kilgore, who still owns the salon, works for the Advocate Aurora Health system as a trauma therapist. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she was based at Sojourner Family Peace Center, a Milwaukee nonprofit that serves survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.
Kilgore and her colleagues work to break the cycle of violence. She utilizes something learned relatively recently in psychology — that trauma affects the brain and behavior.
“Trauma wires the brain and it blocks us sometimes from seeing reality clearly, or trusting our own instincts, or being able to read them and being able to make reasonable choices for ourselves,” Kilgore says.
During the pandemic, Kilgore has continued her work as a trauma therapist by offering teletherapy. She has found that the coronavirus and living in quarantine poses increased challenges, such as domestic violence.
“I've had folks who may have lived with an abuser but had a way out by going to work or school every day. They could call for help or stop in for an appointment, and we worked on planning for how to safely exit the relationship,” she says. “Now, with having limited money, limited resources and limited places they can go, a lot of folks are essentially locked in a home with an abuser.”
As an African American who works in one of America's most segregated cities, Kilgore understands what research has shown: Race has an impact on mental health. For instance, an African American living in a county that is predominantly African American is far less likely to utilize mental health services and is therefore far less likely to be diagnosed with depression, according to a 2019 study led by researchers from Penn State University.
What's more, racism causes mistrust in mental health service systems, and the fear of discrimination based on race and mental illness was worse among college-educated blacks, according to a 2019 study by a professor of sociology and health at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
So how to reach those who may not trust or seek out professional help? One innovative way is to turn to established community gathering places, like barbershops and salons.
“People who work in salons often spend a lot of time connecting to clients and hearing about their lives, so it's natural to bring those two skill sets together,” says Rachel Reinders, director of Alverno's community psychology program. “If they know how to connect their clients with other resources, that can be really powerful.”
Last year, Milwaukee Health Department officials launched a program to equip barbers and stylists with the skills to tackle the trauma their clients may be facing. Kilgore serves as a trainer.
“We touch people and we're in their face and we're in their space for an hour or more when they come in,” Kilgore says, emphasizing the important role of barbers and stylists. “If they're not well, or if they're hallucinating or if they're suffering with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or if they're just deeply depressed or overly anxious, don't become afraid."
Kilgore's dual roles as a licensed counselor and salon owner allow her to build trust and help heal trauma in the community.
“We want to make barbershops and salons spaces where people are safe, where people understand that there's mental well-being in that space,” she adds. “We can have a good time and laugh and talk and share, but now we're trying to encourage folks to also seek well-being.”
Kilgore's salon was temporarily closed under the Safer at Home order, but she still found ways to connect with clients and serve as that listening ear — no salon chair required.
“The other day I called a salon client to check in. She talked to me like she would if she was in the chair. We talked about her mom and her family and some concerns she had, and I wished her good luck,” she recalls. “All of my clients are in my mind and heart. I can't do their hair right now, but I can still be that support.”
This article appears in the spring/summer 2020 issue of Alverno Magazine.