LaVonda Taylor knew she had to get out.

She had lived all her life in Milwaukee, Wis., but she believed there was a better life out there for her and her five children. A life where murders weren’t commonplace, blocks of vacant homes didn’t harbor drug addicts and any innocent family trip to the park could suddenly turn deadly.

The final straw was when a man opened fire on a house by the Taylors, shooting a little boy in the process. Taylor was so terrified for her own family that she told her children to sleep on the floor instead of their beds, stay away from the windows and keep their lights turned off.

It was like living in a war zone, except the battles took place outside her door and the casualties could be her own children.

Taylor knew nothing about Fargo except that a couple of relatives lived there. That was six years ago, right before she and her husband loaded up their family and moved to a city they’d never seen before.

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Today, Taylor says the relocation not only transformed her life, but the lives of her family too.

Taylor, along with Hodan Suleiman, now run A&H Beauty Salon at 250 25th St. S., Fargo. As a professional hair stylist, Taylor makes a better living than she ever dreamed of while working minimum-wage jobs in Wisconsin. A quiet-spoken 34-year-old who looks too young to have an 18-year-old son, Taylor’s own successful journey has inspired her to help others. She plans to give classes to bi-racial families to teach parents how to style their children’s hair and is known for giving free haircuts to people who can’t afford them.

“Just being here has been life-changing,” she says. “Fargo-Moorhead gave me the opportunity to grow.”

Taylor uses a clipper to tidy up the edges of Jace Kolako's haircut.
Taylor uses a clipper to tidy up the edges of Jace Kolako's haircut. Tammy Swift

Tired of fear and violence

Taylor’s early years were focused more on surviving than thriving. The north side of Milwaukee, she says, was like “a mini-Chicago.”

She marvels over the fact she used to walk 20 blocks to school one way, traveling through high-crime neighborhoods and parks from which children had just been abducted.

But Taylor had a good head on her shoulders and always kept an eye out for trouble.

Taylor didn’t want to become the type of person who simply got used to killings and violence. She was tired of living in a state of hyper-vigilance. She had already survived a lot, including growing up poor, getting pregnant at 15 and getting the courage to leave an abusive relationship with her children’s father. She had worked hard her whole life, but often brought home just $700 per paycheck. She knew she deserved better. Her family deserved better. Enough was enough.

It took some convincing for Taylor’s second husband, Chris Smith, to move to Fargo, but Taylor’s mind was made up. “At this point, I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep,” she recalls. “I knew we needed to move to a safe place, a place that’s good for families.”

Several of her extended family lived there and encouraged her to come. They packed their family into a Honda Odyssey, loaded their possessions into a U-Haul and drove west to North Dakota.

"I had never driven on the interstate before, so I probably had a panic attack or two driving to Fargo, " she recalls. "We ran into a tornado, so what was supposed to be an 8 1/2-hour trip turned into a 12-hour trip."

The family initially stayed at Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead. Taylor recalls her husband balking at the prospect of sleeping in a shelter. “I kept reminding him, this is about sacrifice. This is what we have to do right now for a better life for the kids, for my sanity, for all of that.”

After staying there three months and working various jobs, they found a house big enough for all of them.

Taylor frequently calls on her niece, Sheniyah Cole, to model hair techniques for A&H's social media accounts. Here, Sheniyah models a "headband wig," which blends some of her natural hair with a partial wig. The Forum / Tammy Swift
Taylor frequently calls on her niece, Sheniyah Cole, to model hair techniques for A&H's social media accounts. Here, Sheniyah models a "headband wig," which blends some of her natural hair with a partial wig. The Forum / Tammy Swift

A land of opportunities

Not long after, Taylor decided to enroll in Josef’s School of Hair Design.

She'd always had a way with hair. By age 10, she was giving relaxer treatments and roll-and-sets to her mom and aunts.

She started hair school in January of 2016. Besides attending school fulltime, she worked on weekends.

It was a grueling schedule, although Taylor found a friend and ally in classmate Suleiman.

“She was just so sweet,” Taylor says. “We kind of encouraged each other through hair school, which can be so hard and so stressful, and really, really just kept together.”

Both women shared their dreams of running their own salon someday. Here, they agreed, they would welcome people of every nationality and offer them a full range of beauty options.

Vaneisha Taylor models a look to show how it looks before and after her mom straightens it.
Vaneisha Taylor models a look to show how it looks before and after her mom straightens it. Tammy Swift

After graduation, the two friends gained experience working at different salons, but never forgot their dream about their own business. Last September, Suleiman opened A&H. While she’s officially the owner, the two women run the place together. “She’s my motivation, she’s everything,” Suleiman says of Taylor.

In turn, Taylor says of her business partner: “She created all this. She’s amazing.”

New job, new day, new life

The interior of their salon is bright and spacious, with a retail area for wigs, clothes and accessories on one end and Suleiman's and Taylor’s beauty stations on the other. The women recently installed a “selfie corner” - complete with leafy wallpaper and lilies pinned on the wall - where clients can snap “after” pics to capture their new cuts, colors, extensions or facials.

They offer a full spectrum of services, including massage by licensed massage therapist/reiki master Krista Talbott, waxing, facials, wig customization and any number of hair services. A room for pedicure services is nearing completion.

The partners have added culturally sensitive features such as private rooms, where Muslim women can feel safe removing their hajibs to receive salon services.

Taylor uses the studio's selfie wall to capture a family photo of Annelee, Jace and Jeremiah Kolako after Jace's haircut.
Taylor uses the studio's selfie wall to capture a family photo of Annelee, Jace and Jeremiah Kolako after Jace's haircut. Tammy Swift

The stylists get many requests to work with multi-cultural hair, which includes braids, deep-moisturizing hair masques, keratin treatments, protein treatments, wigs, extensions and relaxers.

Taylor's most requested service is the silk press, a process to smooth ultra-curly, coarse hair without using harsh relaxers. It helps textured hair look straight by using the right techniques, the right temperature of hair appliances and highly-moisturizing products.

Helping to educate bi-racial families

While Taylor and Suleiman are best known for ethnic hair right now, they want people to know they are professionally trained stylists who can cut, color and style any hair type. Both gained experience at places like Great Clips, where they cut the hair of any client who walked in the door.

“We’re a different salon. We work with everybody. A lot of people think it’s just African American, we want to be more multicultural,” Suleiman says.

Taylor and Suleiman want to bring together all worlds by giving classes on multi-cultural hair care. The goal is to parents and caregivers in bi-racial, adoptive or foster families how to care for the hair of children of color.

The class will include demonstrations and practical hair care tips plus show how to best accentuate curly locks with barrettes, beads and hair ornaments. As textured hair can be very dry, breakage can be common, which is why Taylor will introduce parents to items like satin pillowcases or deep-moisturizing products to encourage hair growth.

Jace shows off his new cut while mom Annelee Kolako and little brother, Jeremiah, wait.
Jace shows off his new cut while mom Annelee Kolako and little brother, Jeremiah, wait. Tammy Swift

They offer encouragement and support, too. Taylor says white parents of children of color will “think they’re doing something bad,” simply because they don’t instinctively know how to style their child’s hair. She assures them that most of us only know how to work with the type of hair we were born with. “I want to make sure they know it’s not their fault,” she says.

Courtney Seiler is one mom who benefitted from Taylor's instructions. Her daughter, Willow, is just 1 1/2, but already has a full head of very curly hair. Seiler has been taking classes and consulting internet sites to learn the ins and outs of Willow's hair care.

"Her hair is very, very beautiful," Seiler says. "It's very thick and healthy, so this was more about making sure it stays that way."

Taylor introduced Seiler to several products, including a brush that helps control "edges" - those new, baby-fine hairs just emerging from the hairline. She helped Seiler expand her hairstyling repertoire by showing her how to do "twists" - multiple ponytails in which the hair is twisted and then secured at the end with bows.

A&H displays a variety of children's books, hair accessories and products formulated for textured hair. LaVonda Taylor plans to incorporate these into the classes she plans to give bi-racial families on how to care for the hair of children of color.
A&H displays a variety of children's books, hair accessories and products formulated for textured hair. LaVonda Taylor plans to incorporate these into the classes she plans to give bi-racial families on how to care for the hair of children of color. Tammy Swift

Seiler has found these styles not only look great, they help protect ultra-curly hair and can even help it grow faster.

"Ohmigosh, LaVonda was so accommodating and made us feel so comfortable being there," Seiler says. "We'll definitely be back."

‘No limits to what you can do’

Now 34, Taylor is grateful for her new life and the opportunities it provided. Although Fargo is much smaller than her hometown, she says it’s the place that introduced her to people from all corners of the world and taught her about different people and cultures. “I'd never met anyone from Liberia," she says. "It's pretty cool."

After living in an unsafe area, Taylor has a perspective that some lifetime North Dakotans don’t.

“A lot of people complain about here but this is a nice area. It’s so beautiful here,” she says. “When I go (to Milwaukee), my anxiety goes all the way back up.”

She’s appreciated that her children have been able to enjoy more freedom in Fargo, while avoiding the bad influences that have infiltrated her hometown. “I’ve got pretty good kids,” she says.

She and Smith even had one more child since moving here: 4-year-old La’ Christiana, who brings the kid count to six. “She’s our only native North Dakotan,” she says, laughing.

She feels the change was also good for Smith, who works as a cook at Doolittle’s. “He’s way more social,” she says.

As new business owners, Taylor and Suleiman already show a “give back” philosophy when it comes to their community.

They’re currently working to get homebound certification, which will permit them to give at-home haircuts to people who aren’t able to make it to a salon for services.

They gave away free makeovers during Breast Cancer Awareness Month and plan to participate in the free Cuts for Kids event when the new school year rolls around.

In between raising kids and working, Taylor also finds the energy to volunteer. Several years ago, when she was somehow balancing work as a CNA with work as a hairstylist, she spent her spare weekends doing hair for nursing home residents who couldn’t afford hair services.

She plans to continue her good works, hopefully giving free haircuts once a month at the New Life Center in Fargo.

People sometimes ask the busy working mom how she does so much.

And Taylor, the woman who took control of her life with a leap of faith, just smiles.

“I’m like, “It’s no limit. I teach my kids it’s no limit to what you can do.”