The frightened young woman wanted to take her two children and leave her abusive partner, but then the beating began.

"I'm going to make you ugly; no one's going to want you," her abuser said before hacking off her long hair with a knife, leaving her not only battered, but humiliated.

The 23-year-old mother, whose name is being withheld to protect her, took refuge at the St. Paul Domestic Abuse Intervention Project.

Her abuser "was going to do anything he could to not relinquish that control and not let her leave," said advocate Bree Adams Bill, who helped her get a restraining order and find shelter for herself and her children.

That grim episode in October 2010 kicked off a Minnesota salon's effort to provide abused women with free haircuts and makeovers. It's a godsend for the demoralized victims, particularly those who have had abusers slash off their hair, a not uncommon form of physical abuse.

Brian Horst, who owns Details Style Lab in downtown St. Paul, said its stylists are participating in a nationwide campaign to help abuse victims called "Cut it Out."

The help stylists can provide goes beyond giving battered women a fresh look; for instance, in a previous job in western Wisconsin, Adams Bill trained some stylists to recognize signs of abuse when working on clients, then offer them information about how to get help and support.

The salon's project helps victims heal, said Kelli, another victim. The 26-year-old St. Paul woman, who asked that her last name not be used, was invited to Details' free makeover day on Jan. 21. During a violent attack three years ago, her assailant didn't hack off her hair, but he hurt her body and the way she saw herself.

"I felt like, why do I deserve this? That's what I felt like," she said, dabbing away tears.

"But I was getting stronger since my incident happened," Kelli continued. "It was perfect timing for me. I came in, they did my hair, my nails. It was just amazing that they would give that to me. It put icing on the cake for me. I'm in a better place than I've ever been."

Details' work symbolizes much more than just a haircut, say Kelli, women's advocates and law enforcement officials, who hail it as a first step in a battered woman's quest to reclaim control of her life. It shows how every person, organization or business can do its part to fight a problem that's provoking fresh outrage after four recent metro slayings that came as women were trying to leave abusive men.

"It is heartening to hear about people taking the initiative to help victims of domestic violence," said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.

"Law enforcement can't do it alone," he said. "We need a community response from everyone around domestic violence, and that involvement can be unique, just like this effort by this small-business owner. Small inspirational acts, one person at a time, can really make a big difference to establish a community value."

Hundreds rally

That message was delivered loud and clear this week in a rally at the State Capitol Rotunda to call for stronger efforts to stop violence against women. There, hundreds of men and women raised their voices to demand a new, collaborative approach to the problem.

Details Lab's first case, that of the young mother whose hair was chopped off by her abuser, unfolded in October 2010 when Adams Bill called fellow advocate Danielle Kluz at Bridges to Safety, a collaboration of St. Paul Intervention and 17 other member agencies working to end domestic violence in Ramsey County.

Kluz called her own stylist at Details, which has done many fundraising events for AIDS, abuse victims and other civic causes.

"No problem, we'll send Shannon over," Horst told her. "When do you need us?"

Within an hour, stylist Shannon Lehman of St. Paul arrived at Bridges to Safety, equipment in hand.

"She gave the woman an absolutely beautiful haircut in my office," Kluz said.

Lehman said it was easy for her to cross the street to help, but hard to look at what the abuser had done. The woman had jagged cuts in her dark, curly hair, and clumps missing.

But when Lehman's work was done, there were smiles all around.

"You get so much back when you give," Lehman said. "I'm so glad that we've made the connection with Danielle and Bree, because it's a way for us to use our powers to do good."