Together we make a profound difference

For Community, For Family


By Michelle Simone

In the barbershop he owns, the San Mateo Zoo, Travis Sweeney is engaged in his chosen craft, shaping a client’s hair. There is an art to this business, reading each client’s facial shape, bone structure, and personal style, then using shears, electric razors, and blades to achieve a look that is sharp, modern, and uniquely his own. Sweeney, a five-year Mason at Peninsula Lodge No. 168, has honed his profession for several years now. But his roots in this business are much deeper, and his path leading to it tells the story of who he is as man.

A Twist of Fate
In 2010, Sweeney was four years into his career at the County of San Mateo, where he worked as a case management assessment specialist in the behavioral health and alcohol and drug department. He was a liaison for homeless residents, helping to get people off the street and into permanent housing. His role was challenging, yet rewarding. But then, the budget cuts came. Sweeney’s team knew that one of their positions would be eliminated, and a quick analysis revealed who: The last-hired worker was one of Sweeney’s best friends. The young man had just gotten married, and his wife had recently been deported.

Sweeney was heartbroken, imaging his friend’s plight. That weekend, he went to get a haircut. Sitting in the barber’s chair, he closed his eyes and meditated, searching for a solution. Then it came to him: a vision of his grandfather who was a barber years before.

“My grandfather owned a salon, and my mom worked in the business along with my aunt and grandmother,” says Sweeney. “I started thinking about being in my grandfather’s shop as a kid, sweeping up hair and getting paid five bucks. I got goose bumps. I felt like my grandfather was there next to me, saying, ‘This is what you’re supposed to be doing.’ I made my decision right then and there and it felt completely organic.”

The following day, he resigned his position. His friend kept the job he desperately needed. Sweeney went to barber college.

Masonic Perspective
Though this decision was made on a relative whim, it was a success. Sweeney began working at local barbershops, and when he was able to, he bought his own shop from a friend. It was around this time that he began thinking seriously about Freemasonry.

“I saw a friend who I grew up with turn his life around – in a profound way – after becoming a Mason. He was fulfilling a desire to be good and really caring about humanity in a way I’d never seen in his character before. His transformation for me was very eye-opening and intriguing,” Sweeney says. “He was my gateway to Masonry. I joined his lodge.”

Sweeney has found that Masonry has focused many of the positive characteristics he already had – being good-natured, honest, and willing to help other people – while giving him more discipline and a new perspective. “Masonry has allowed me to dig deeper into my own spirit and my community to find a higher sense of purpose,” he says.

Building Community
Today, the San Mateo Zoo, mirrors the personality of Sweeney’s grandfather’s shop. It is a gathering place for family and community. Clients young and old seek the Zoo’s legendary fades and shaves. Fathers and sons come in together. High school students gather on benches outside. Sweeney wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Behind the chair when I’m cutting hair, it’s always a good opportunity to mentor young children – and even adults, for that matter,” Sweeney says. “We’re here to give haircuts, but we’re also here because we care about our clients and this community.”

This community includes clients of Gatepath, an organization that serves people with special needs and developmental disabilities. At Christmastime, the Zoo welcomes Gatepath clients for a free haircutting party and fellowship. This partnership, much like Sweeney’s career as a barber, is deeply personal.

About a year after Sweeney became a Mason, he and his wife, Dana, were preparing to welcome their first biological children together – identical twin girls. Ten days away from their scheduled cesarean section, tragedy struck. During an emergency delivery, one twin was lost and the second went without blood or oxygen to her brain for 14 minutes. This surviving twin, Emerson, sustained brain, kidney, and liver damage. Doctors told the Sweeneys that she would likely never be able to show emotion, walk, or feed and dress herself. The family was given the option to walk away.

The Sweeneys were devastated but their devotion never wavered. Their daughter was in intensive care for 60 days. When they made the decision to bring her home, she was on 12 medications and had to be fed through a tube. She needed physical, occupational, and speech therapy.

“We asked for prayers for Emerson on Facebook. We joined a lot of prayer groups and started receiving positive feedback and encouragement – and we received support in a lot of different ways,” Sweeney recalls.

Giving Back
A few months after his daughter left the hospital, Sweeney crossed paths with a client who revealed that he also had a child with special needs. He shared information about the local resources that his family had been able to access – and chief among these was Gatepath.

It was that holiday season when Sweeney’s journey came full circle. At a friend’s suggestion, he organized the San Mateo Zoo’s first-ever holiday event, a free haircutting event for developmentally disabled children and adults. It was the perfect way to create bring together the special-needs community for a great cause.

“To find other parents who are supporting kids in similar situations – to build a community – is important,” Sweeney says. “I wanted to give families a chance to talk about their challenges and strengths; an opportunity to make connections.“

Sweeney coached his colleagues on how to make their Gatepath clients comfortable. He was keenly aware that people with special needs are often sensitive to bright lights, loud noises, and vibrations. Being touched by strangers requires extraordinary trust. During the Zoo’s holiday event, the barbers took all these factors into consideration and created an atmosphere of acceptance, celebration, and warmth. Their efforts were bolstered by an influx of clients and community members who attended the event with offerings of toys, blankets, and friendship.

But perhaps the true highlight came from the clients themselves. “The smiles on the children’s faces were just amazing,” Sweeney says.
















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