Cassandra Weller’s passion to make a difference, even though she felt like “just a hairdresser”, led her to launch With These Two Hands – a not-for-profit organisation that educates and empowers women living in poverty to become certified hairdressers and find employment.

She just spent Christmas and New Year’s  in Ecuador training groups of 40 women so they wouldn’t have to resort to sex work, begging or petty theft to provide for their families.

Cassandra Weller’s journey started in South America in 2012. She’s always felt a deep-driven desire to do something, but thought she was “just a hairdresser” and didn’t have the necessary skills to really make a difference. Cut to 2016 and she’s launched With These Two Hands, travelled to Quito, Ecuador, twice to educate young women to become hairdressers and earn their income, PLUS she’s studying Development Studies at university to gain a better understanding of the non-profit world and how she can make more of a difference. Can this chick get any cooler? (Yes, she can. And she will.)

While volunteering at a yoga farm, Cass met people who worked for CENIT – a not-for-profit organisation providing programs for working children and their families to overcome poverty - and eventually travelled to Ecuador. She was inspired by the people she met, but didn’t think she had any available skills. Turns out all you need is two basins, limited tools and a whole bunch of eager students. But it didn’t all start there.

After returning to Australia, Cass was working in a hairdressing college as an educator and loved teaching but wasn’t exactly happy with where her career was headed. “I couldn’t stop thinking about Ecuador and I always wanted to go back. I love travelling, and since living in London I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish and I also love teaching. So the idea kind of ticked those three boxes.”

It was on a flight to Melbourne with her boss, talking about holiday plans, that her truth came pouring out. With one page left on her passport, Cass was torn between a yoga retreat, back to London, a trip to the Philippines with a friend, or to Ecuador and teach hairdressing to women. “All of a sudden I started crying! I was all emotional. Then my boss said, ‘It’s obvious what you need to do’, and so that was it. I started organising a fundraising event and raised $10,000.”

On 29 December 2014, she was off. With These Two Hands was born.

I caught up with Cass late last year while she was finishing up her first year of Uni and preparing for an epic fundraising event for the latest trip to Ecuador. In Newcastle in October, she ran a ‘Wandering Feast’ dinner, sponsored by some amazing restaurants and organisations and hosted by NBN Television, raising $15,000 for her to take tools, mannequin heads and wigs overseas for the women.

With the eventual aim of running two training programs a year and building a self-sustainable model for women through partnering with CENIT, Cass has a lot on her plate. Uni, teaching and hairdressing in Australia, and building an incredible socially-focused program in Ecuador; it’s not for the faint of heart.

But Cass definitely has the heart to make it work and that is the coolest thing I took away from our conversation. A few times while talking about the women in her programs, she teared up and became overwhelmed by their hardships and the rewards of seeing them achieve a certification that would help them support their families and earn a living in a safe, healthy way. I damn near almost cried with her.

Follow Cass’s latest journey in El Mamar, in the south of Quito, Ecuador – she posts video updates and blogs on the reg.

by Amy Lovat

Did you have any other volunteering experience before starting With These Two Hands?

I was backpacking South America from 2011 to 2012 and always wanted to do some volunteering. I started out on a yoga farm, and we had to garden for four hours every morning without any gardening gloves. It was rough! Five months later I was in Ecuador and met mutual friends there who all worked for an organisation called CENIT (which stands for ‘Centre of the Working Girl’ in Spanish). They were telling me about the women’s empowerment programs and I said I would love to do something like that, but I’m “just a hairdresser”. They told me that the women wanted to learn to do hairdressing. That’s where it all started.

What do the training programs look like when you run them?

The classes went from 2pm to 5pm every day. I originally thought they would go all day but because of their culture and commitments, their mornings are so busy. They get the kids ready, everyone goes home for lunch so they prepare that for their husbands… it’s still a gender stereotypical culture over there so the women would come to class after their “duties”. In the mornings I would do Spanish lessons, then I’d go straight to the school at CENIT, help feed the kids lunch and then start the class. It’s a free program for the women so they have to apply, and we take 40 students at a time.

How often can you go over to run programs in Ecuador if it’s a month-long training project?

January 2015 was the pilot for a month, and I engaged with the women to find out what they wanted, what suited them and their lifestyles, how much money they earned and could earn. I’m now designing a sustainable model so that it can run without me, because it’s just me! I would like volunteers to come but it’s been a distracting year with Uni and a lot of people can’t come due to time or financial difficulty. It’s all self-funded – I raise money through crowdfunding to take the resources over there for the women, but pay for my own trip etc.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced since setting up With These Two Hands?

I guess not having an educational background, to know how to set up such a facility. I left school in Year 10 and I’ve never been to Uni, so now I’m basically learning how to study as well. I don’t even know how to write an essay. What’s a topic sentence?! [laughs]

Plus things like setting up a website and writing copy. But I am really lucky that I have a wordsmith friend who has been helping me quite a bit and guiding me. I’ve also had an accountant firm get on board and help set everything up as I didn’t know a lot of that stuff! Overall, probably the biggest challenge is finding the time to commit to it. It needs to be a full-time job but I don't have the time with university plus working.

How have you created awareness of the project and what you’re trying to do in empowering women over there who are living in such dire situations?

That’s another hard thing. Social media has been great, but it’s all about when to post and what kind of content. The Wandering Feast event really helped raise awareness and fundraising, but I’m not really in a rush to push it out. I still need to build a strong foundation for the project.

What’s the most rewarding part of what you’re doing?

One student, Catty, would come with her two-year-old daughter every day, and they would come early. She would help me clean and get ready for the day; she’s so sweet and really wanted to become a hairdresser. The idea is to eventually upskill her so that she can be the trainer when I’m not there. Every day the students would turn up and give me a hug and kiss, which was nice and make me feel part of the community. Just small things like we all support each other, and I give praise to the students, who tell me that no one has ever praised or congratulated them on how well they’re doing. It’s so rewarding.