Antonio Francisco Gonzales, founder of social enterprise AFG Hair Studio has partnered with 1736 Family Crisis Center to sponsor 31 children with clothing and other items. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

For about two decades, Antonio Francisco Gonzales has been in the business of hair, specializing in high-profile women’s cuts, color and styling. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, he studied his craft in the San Fernando Valley in the late ’90s, honed his skills in New York City, took his talents to Miami Beach and finally ended up in Long Beach this year.

In New York, Gonzales, 48, found himself in salons catering to celebrity and celebrity adjacent clients. He worked numerous fashion weeks and landed a gig at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. He moved from New York to Miami Beach for a change of pace but the transition backfired and quickly led to what he described as a nervous breakdown.

“I was… living this lifestyle that was beyond my means. It quickly brought me to my knees—I started couch surfing,” Gonzales said. “I was unable to work and found myself just sort of alone.”

The hardships he faced in Miami Beach, as it turns out, had a silver lining: Gonzales found a new passion—serving his community face-to-face, particularly the underserved, unhoused population.

“Someone suggested that I show up for someone else… and I started volunteering at a hospital, being there for people,” Gonzales said. “It allowed me to not think about myself. When you’re depressed, the only thing you think about is yourself—so much pain and loneliness.”

Gonzales quickly realized he could use his passion for hair to help women in need, including those with unstable living situations and survivors of domestic abuse and sex trafficking. He said that when it comes to assisting people who find themselves living in those circumstances, self-care such as haircuts often go by the wayside but that such care can go a long way in making people feel more like themselves; to feel seen.

Cutting the hair of those in need was not Gonzales’ first foray into philanthropy. While in New York, he set himself up as a social enterprise, AFG Hair Studio, donating 3% of all his revenue to shelters.

In February, Gonzales and his husband, Padrick Gleason, moved to Long Beach. He began renting chairs in local salons and continued his social enterprise donations. But he wanted to continue his physical philanthropic work and connected with the 1736 Family Crisis Center in Torrance, a nonprofit shelter for domestic violence survivors, runaway and homeless youth, low-income people and those in crisis.

Gonzales made two trips to the center to give free haircuts before COVID-19 struck, after which he could no longer visit. Undeterred, he reached out to Program Coordinator Michele Nadeau to see how he could support the shelter from afar. Now, Gonzales is collecting donations of new clothes for 31 children and their mothers as well as noise-canceling headphones for children to use at the shelter during virtual learning.

“With school starting, that was a big driving factor in wanting to make sure our kids have what they need to be successful,” Nadeau said. “It was our increased need—a lot of times kids need clothes and things like that, so he’s been taking wishlists and passing those on. It’s been awesome.”

Gonzales received the name, age, clothing size and favorite color for each of the children at the shelter and is finding sponsors to purchase $75-$150 worth of items for them. He said he is still seeking sponsors for some children but that the overall response has been very positive.

Nadeau said the pandemic has added another layer of difficulty to providing services for people at the shelter, which requires not a small amount of community outreach. She explained that Gonzales stepping up amid the chaos has heartened her.

Long Beach resident Angelina Nader said she has been friends with Gonzales for a long time and has served the L.A. County community by his side several times in the past. She has sponsored multiple children as part of his latest effort.

Hairdresser Antonio Francisco Gonzales cuts a client’s hair while observing safety precautions amid COVID-19. Photo by Brandon Richardson. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

“In light of… everything that’s happening in the world, it’s important to make sure everybody has equal opportunity. There’s already this divide,” Nader said. “We can bridge that gap and I know that is Antonio’s mission.”

When the world returns to some semblance of normal and he has the funding, Gonzales said he hopes to open his own salon in Long Beach to continue his social enterprise work.

“I love living in Long Beach,” he said. “It’s an incredible community.”

While he plans to continue and expand his other philanthropic endeavors, Gonzales said he cannot wait until he is able to once again visit the shelter and reunite his two passions.

“Working with families, especially single mothers and children has been really impactful for me,” Gonzales said. “I am at my strongest and most fearless when I am in the shelter, talking to women, relating to them and connecting, helping them feel beautiful from the inside out. They are my heroes.”