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Jim Kenyon: A tangled path leads to a new calling

  • Sophia Green flags down her first customer, who was having trouble finding the salon, Touch By Sofie, in Lebanon, N.H., on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. Green, who started her business styling hair in her nearby home, has been cleaning, painting and preparing the shop since March. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After braiding the hair of Darcel Saunders-Maharaj, of Quechee, right, covering it with a protective cap and using an adhesive to attach prepared strands of human hair to the cap, Sophia Green cuts and shapes the style in her salon, Touch by Sofie, in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, May 5, 2021. "I've gotten a lot of help from people," said Green who moved to the Upper Valley from Jamaica on a work visa 10 years ago. "I want to give back, giving back makes me happy." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Nina Massa, 12, of Thetford, front left, waits to have her hair done with her mother Cherry Sullivan, front right, as Renaé Bond-McDonald prepars her work station at right in Touch by Sofie's in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, May 5, 2021. Sophia Green styles the hair of her first customer Darcel Saunders-Maharaj, of Quechee, at left. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sophia Green, right, her step-daughter Triszel Miller, left, and daughter Ashley Togo, middle, talk with the salon's first customer Darcel Saunders-Maharaj, of Quechee, as she checks out after having her hair styled in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Darcel Saunders-Maharaj, of Quechee, left, dances in appreciation after looking at her new hairstyle done by Sophia Green, right, in her newly opened salon, Touch by Sofie, in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, May 5, 2021. Saunders-Maharaj, who has been doing her own hair and her daughter's hair since moving to the Upper Valley 18 months ago, spent nearly two hours in the chair as Green did the quick weave. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 5/8/2021 10:04:21 PM
Modified: 5/8/2021 10:04:18 PM

Ten years ago, Sophia Green came to this country in search of a better life. It’s meant scrubbing motel room toilets, emptying hospital bed pans and working as a machine operator at a laundry plant, sometimes walking home to her Lebanon apartment after midnight only to wake up at 5:30 a.m. to begin another shift.

“She has overcome so much,” said Caroline Grant, who worked with Green at Kleen, the laundry plant on Foundry Street in Lebanon that closed in 2019. “She was always trying to get extra money to send home to her children. There’s nothing she wouldn’t do for them.”

On Wednesday, Green, who is from Jamaica, took a giant step in fulfilling her dream. A few doors down from the former Hirsch’s clothing and shoe store in downtown Lebanon, Green opened a hair-braiding salon.

“This is something I’ve wanted to do since I was small,” Green told me. “I can’t believe it’s happening.”

Green, now 43, grew up on the north coast of Jamaica. When she was 12, two men sex sexually assaulted her at gunpoint. She quit going to school after ninth grade.

In 2011, when she was in her early 30s, Green came to the U.S. under the federal H-2B program that allows employers to bring in foreign nationals to work hard-to-fill nonagricultural jobs.

Moving to the U.S. was a chance to start over, but it required leaving her two daughters, Akevia and Ashley, in Jamaica to live with family. Green scrimped to send them $100 or so every couple of weeks for food, clothing and school supplies.

Green started out as a housekeeper at a hotel in Maine, where she met a man with ties to the Upper Valley. They married and moved to Lebanon, but the relationship “didn’t work out,” she said.

In November 2013, Green was hired for an $11-an-hour housekeeping job at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. A couple of years later, she managed to bring her daughters to the U.S. In 2018, she became a U.S. citizen and remarried shortly thereafter. Her husband, Nassan Miller, who is also from Jamaica, came to the U.S, after a career in his country’s military.

I met Green in 2019. She had filed a complaint with the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights, accusing DHMC of discrimination.

Green claimed that DHMC supervisors had different rules for her and two Jamaican co-workers, both women, than they did for other members of the housekeeping staff. Green told me about a night when she and her two co-workers were on break on an upper floor of the hospital when a supervisor approached. “Is this your hiding spot?” Green recalled him asking them.

DHMC’s management “treated us like we were nobody,” Green told me in a 2019 interview. “We knew we were being treated differently, but we were afraid to talk about it because we were afraid of losing our jobs.”

Green couldn’t afford to leave DHMC. Along with a steady paycheck, she needed health insurance. She was battling bouts of depression and anxiety, along with stomach problems, that caused her to miss work more often than allowed under DHMC’s “unplanned absences” policy. For some of the absences, Green got a note from her doctor, but that didn’t matter to her DHMC bosses.

In 2017, she was given a choice: quit or be fired. To avoid a negative mark on her employment record, she resigned.

After the Human Rights Commission, a state agency, agreed to investigate Green’s discrimination claim, DHMC brought in a Concord law firm to argue, among other things, that Green’s “claims are barred because she resigned.”

Green recently received a letter from the commission, indicating that it was about to wrap up the investigation and she’d soon be notified of its outcome.

On Friday, she still hadn’t heard. DHMC didn’t respond to my request for comment.

Since I last wrote about Green, she’s had her ups and downs. After leaving DHMC, she found work with a private cleaning company that assigned her to a hotel in Hartford.

When the work dried up, the cleaning company offered Green a job 1,800 miles away at a casino hotel in North Dakota. “It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but at the time, my husband wasn’t working,” she said. “I had to go.”

For each room she cleaned, she was paid $6.

By this time, her oldest daughter, Akevia, now in her 20s, had returned to Jamaica. Ashley, a student at Lebanon High School, stayed with her stepfather.

During the family’s financial struggles, Ashley wanted to get a part-time job to help out. Her mother wouldn’t hear of it.

“I’ll do the work,” she told her daughter. “You just focus on school.”

After Miller received his green card, which allows him to permanently live and work in the U.S., Green returned home. She became a licensed nursing assistant, working in elderly care.

In her spare time, she braided friends’ hair at her apartment. Braiding is intricate and time-consuming work, but Green not only liked it, she had a gift for it. When she posted photos of her work on social media, strangers asked if she could do their braids.

In Jamaica, Green had started working on a degree at a cosmetology school, but when it comes to braiding she’s mostly self-taught.

“If there are things she can’t do, she looks them up on YouTube and masters them,” said Renae Bond-McDonald, a friend who is helping out at the salon.

“I just practice a lot,” Green said.

A while back, she mentioned to Grant, her former co-worker at Kleen, that she was thinking about starting her own business. Grant told her about an empty storefront on the same Hanover Street block where she’s opening a spice and herb shop.

After signing a lease, Green spent several weeks painting walls and cleaning up after the previous tenant to prepare for a city inspection, which she passed on Tuesday.

When I stopped by that evening, Miller, a landscaper for a property maintenance company, was backing his truck up to the front door. Miller and his daughter, Triszel, then unloaded chairs that Green had found at a thrift store. Ashley, now a senior at Lebanon High, pitched in as well.

“My mother has worked so hard to have her own business,” said Ashley, who plans to study respiratory therapy in college. “She really deserves it.”

Even with Green’s work ethic and support network, success is far from guaranteed. About 20% of small businesses fail within the first year, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And that was before the coronavirus pandemic.

Touch By Sofie (a version of her first name) is no doubt a niche business. But with nine customers in her first three days, Green has reason to be encouraged.

Her prices range from $60 to $500, depending on the style, length of hair and how much time a braiding takes.

“For generations, Black women have sat for hours on end, in salon chairs, on front porches and on living room floors, having their hair gently — and sometimes not so tenderly — woven to form the perfect braid,” The New York Times wrote in 2016.

Although Touch By Sofie is geared toward Black women, Green expects her customers will include some “white folks.” (Along with hair braiding, Green does hair weaves and dreadlocks.)

On a counter next to a well-lit room where Green applies makeup for customers, she’s arranged a half-dozen wigs on mannequins’ heads. Word has spread through social media that Green crafts free wigs for cancer patients who have lost their hair during treatments. “It’s what makes me happy,” she said.

Kate Semple Barta, an immigration attorney who works for WISE, a Lebanon nonprofit that offers support and preventive services related to gender-based violence, has watched Green’s progression from laundry worker to small-business owner.

“I know how hard she works and how motivated she is,” Semple Barta said in a phone interview. “She takes responsibility for herself and doesn’t expect anyone to take care of her.”

On Friday afternoon, Green had tossed her sneakers off and put her feet up — enjoying a rest break between customers.

Braiding hair for a living requires Green to stand for hours at a time, not unlike some of the menial jobs she’s held over the last decade.

“This is different,” she said, motioning to the salon’s black barber chairs, “because it’s mine.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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