TikTok star teams up with Rock Hill barber to give free haircuts to disabled kids

ROCK HILL — It was 8 a.m. on a normal Sunday in August, just another day in a string of months that felt all the same for James Lightner.

Lightner, a Rock Hill barber for over 15 years, had hit a “plateau” in his career. Then, while giving his kids a bath at 8 a.m. on that Sunday, he stumbled upon an Instagram reel.

It was a viral video of a Cincinnati barber, Vernon Jackson, who has appeared on “Good Morning America,” interviewed with Jennifer Hudson and held hair-cutting events in London. 

In the video, Jackson gives a haircut to Ellison Eubanks, a 7-year-old who has down syndrome and a congenital heart defect. The two are depicted joking back and forth, as Eubanks tells Jackson to start and stop the razor every few seconds. They both smile — the full-teeth kind — for nearly the entire 60 seconds.

All the way back in Rock Hill, it shook something alive in Lightner, a 38-year-old barber and owner of The Shop, prompting him to bring Jackson to Rock Hill for an event on Sept. 25.

Lightner regained the spark to scale the plateau that had been holding him back. 

“I got to the point to where I got comfortable, and I wasn’t pushing like I needed to,” he said.

Until he saw the reel.

“It was just a door opener,” he said, adding “it just drove me. I want to do something good.”

After watching the video, Lightner sent an Instagram message to Jackson. Jackson’s work is a “blessing,” he wrote, and offered his help.

He didn’t expect a response.

Two hours later, Jackson responded. Jackson didn’t just want Lightner to weigh in. He saw Lightner’s drive to help kids and wanted to work with another Black barber. He wanted to fly to Rock Hill and put on an entire event.

On Sept. 25 from 1 to 5 p.m. at The Shop on Anderson Road, Jackson and Lightner will team up to host “The Gifted Event,” providing free haircuts for kids with disabilities. Jackson will participate in a meet-and-greet before, but once the clock hits 1 p.m., they will shut down the business and focus their energy on the more than 10 kids who booked appointments. 

How Jackson created “The Gifted Event”

Jackson has been a barber for nearly 20 years and owns a shop in Cincinnati. He found that he couldn’t dedicate the necessary time kids who have disabilities.

So in 2019, he started coming into his shop on off days, providing the children with free haircuts. It allowed him to take his time and mold the session around the kids’ needs — to limit the noise, create space to play “stop and go” with Eubanks or allow for one-on-one conservations without any distractions.

“They deserve all of the peaceful experiences as well, in terms of having an environment where they’re separated so they become acclimated the process is important,” Jackson told The Post and Courier in a recent interview. 

Local and national media caught wind.

The clip with Eubanks received over 5 million views, catapulting Jackson’s platform. He started a GoFundMe that has raised nearly $138,000 from 2,700 donors.

At the beginning, he used that money to fund his off-day haircuts in Cincinnati. Most recently, he’s extending the money to host “The Gifted Event” in cities across the world. Last month, he went to London, his first trip. Rock Hill is his second. 

Lightner, a Chester native who moved to Rock Hill in 2005, was raised haircutting. His mom, two aunts and sister all cut hair. Lightner ended up going to barber school, later working for his mom, who owned The Glory Women Hair Salon in Rock Hill. He has spent over 15 years honing his craft — even when he worked overnight shifts at a warehouse, getting just four hours of sleep.

He took over ownership of The Shop five years ago.

“Cutting hair, you’re not only just a barber,” he said. “It seems like you’re a therapist, a person to listen to people’s problems.”

Lightner wants to start his own version of Jackson’s mission for kids with disabilities. And he wants to extend it even further to work with kids in group homes, as well.

First, though, comes “The Gifted Event.”

When asked what he’s looking forward to about visiting Rock Hill, Jackson is quick to respond.

“I’m coming down there to work.”

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