Ask Dorothy McCollum what social work and hair braiding have in common and she has an answer. Both jobs, she says, require caring for others.
Some evenings and on weekends, you will find her styling African-American women’s hair at her shop on North Martin Luther King Drive.
During the day, McCollum is a professional social worker at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee where she works with mentally ill veterans.
She has worked in jobs related to mental health for much of her adult life. She said she connects with the veterans because family members, including her father, a brother and both of her sons, have served in the military. McCollum said she’s also suffered depression. “Because of my history and my past,” she said, “I am able to relate really well, I think.”
Her past has not been easy. Her husband died when she was 28 years old and the young mother, who had dropped out of high school, could only read at the fifth- grade level. While McCollum was working as a certified nursing assistant at Milwaukee County’s mental health complex, a nurse encouraged her to get an education, so she studied for her high school diploma.
“I got my GED results back and I’d passed all the tests,” she said, “and then I realized I could learn.” She earned a bachelor’s degree at Mount Mary University and later landed a job caring for veterans who are ill. “It’s a God thing,” according to McCollum, who believes the work is something she is meant to do.
She earned her master’s degree in social work at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2010 and now works at the Veterans’ Recovery Resource Center with veterans who suffer illnesses including schizophrenia, severe depression, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She works with her supervisor, Dr. Erin B. Williams, and a team of others in a program aimed at integrating veterans back into the community.
Williams called McCollum a “jewel and a treasure of a human being,” adding, “she is sensible, dedicated and gracious in her work.” She described McCollum as a strong advocate for the mentally ill.
However, according to McCollum, “watching what veterans go through can be painful.”
So she de-stresses at her second job as a hairdresser at the shop she owns called D&D Lovely Locs. Her specialty is Sisterlocks, an all-natural process in which she uniformly parts the hair according to a pattern and weaves it into hundreds of thin braids. The initial braiding can take up to 15 hours.
The style is professional and familiar to African-American women, said McCollum. “We’ve always braided our hair. As a kid, your mother braided your hair because the style needed to last; mother did not have the time to do your hair every day.”
She didn’t intend to start a business, but got into it after taking a class to learn how to braid her own hair and her daughter’s hair. Others liked her work and she now books customers two months in advance.
One of those customers, Karen Nimmer, was in the stylist’s chair on a recent Saturday morning having McCollum retighten her locks, a three-hour process. She said she chose the easy-to-manage style several years ago and has not looked back.
All of the hours in the chair, Nimmer said, led to a friendship between the two women. They know one another’s children and take an exercise class together. According to Nimmer, “There’s more to it than hair. It’s a genuine friendship.”
McCollum said she is able to process some of the difficult things she sees during the day when working with people with mental illness by “talking to her supervisor or to God.” She added, “When I leave work, most of the time I can leave it there.”
Her own therapy, she said, is the hair styling she does after hours and on weekends, and the friendships she develops with the women who come into her shop to have their hair cared for.