Philanthropic stylist recovering from ‘mystery illness’

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Joseph Saavedra walks along with Therapy Nurse Peggy Walton whom he credits for his recovery. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

Life had been beautiful.

That was his business, beauty. Stylist Joseph Saavedra had made a living making his privileged clientele gorgeous with a curl, cut or color.

But what he did went beyond the brush – he made his customers feel beautiful by how he doted on them, how he remembered their names and everything about them, how he knew just what to say to make them feel special.

The lovely ladies of the salon set were not the only ones special to him. For more than two decades, Saavedra devoted himself to helping the downtrodden and the disenfranchised through his Pennies for the Homeless charity, which every November raised thousands of dollars through its swanky see-and-be-seen high tea and fashion shows – an estimated half-million dollars in all.

In our conversation years ago, he said he was passionate about helping the homeless because he knew how easily their fate could have been his were it not for the kindness of others.

He was 4 when his mother abandoned him and his grandparents took him in. He was in his early teens when they died and an aunt and uncle stepped in. He was 18 when they were killed by a drunken driver.

So much had been given to him. It was only right, he said, to give back.

“It’s about helping others when you can,” he said. “It’s not forgetting swimming in ditches when you swim in a blue pool.”

That was in 2008. But even then his blue pool was slowly emptying. Last summer, he found himself in that ditch.

“I lost everything,” he said. “I lost my home in Four Hills in 2008 when the economy went bad and so many of my clients went away, and I’ve been struggling uphill ever since. I never had women go away and not come back. They just couldn’t afford me anymore.”

Few knew he was living in his truck parked outside the salon where he rented a booth. He was homeless but spoke only of the need to help others who were homeless.

Then things got worse.

He remembers Aug. 10, 2017, beginning as a normal day – a trip to Starbucks, then the salon by 7 a.m.

“I remember falling, hitting my head on a counter, bang, boom, then getting up and saying I was fine,” he said.

He wasn’t. And it hadn’t been a normal day. He hadn’t been normal for a while.

Saavedra was taken to the University of New Mexico Hospital, dazed, his words slurred, his body limp, and no one knew why.

“He almost died,” said Carla Aragon, a former KOB News anchor, hostess for the high tea and fashion show, a client and a friend of Saavedra’s for 38 years. “He couldn’t walk, talk or use his hands.”

Tests yielded no answers. An airborne virus, perhaps. Complications from the hairstyling chemicals, maybe.

Aragon said doctors pronounced it a “mystery illness,” and that was that.

He remained hospitalized for seven weeks, struggling to lift his head or utter a word. He lost 35 pounds.

For the first time since 1998, the high tea and fashion show last November was canceled.

“We could not do it without him, his contacts and vision for the show,” Aragon said. “It was heartbreaking for all of us.”

Before Christmas, Saavedra was transferred to the Genesis Bear Canyon Rehabilitation Center, where he remains today. This week, I visited him there.

He’s gained back some of the weight, some of the color to his face. He walks slowly with a walker. His hair is grayer. He is tired.

But his mind is sharp, and his ability to make people feel special is evidenced in the way he chats with everybody who stops by.

He knows their names, their stories. Unlike many of the residents who sit silently staring in wheelchairs, Saavedra, 63, engages in conversation as if he were back at his salon or rubbing elbows again with the beautiful people at high tea.

It has not been easy being here, losing everything.

“I was trapped,” he said, his voice breaking. “It was horrible. I couldn’t do anything. If I didn’t have my faith, I don’t know how I would have survived.”

His friends, too, pulled him through. The man who made others feel special had to learn he was special, too.

“Joseph knows that he is surrounded by angels,” Aragon said. “For the last year, dozens of people have stepped up to help him get through this.”

He’s going to need them. Although he’s not yet strong enough to leave Bear Canyon, plans must be made for where he will land with no home, no family, no money, no retirement fund. Medicaid goes only so far. And, he said, he believes his stylist career – which in its heyday included clientele like Barbara Sinatra – is over.

Friends have started a GoFundMe for him. That’s been hard for him to accept.

“I’m a giver,” he said. “I raise money for others.”

So he focuses on that.

He is determined to put on another Pennies for the Homeless high tea and fashion show, determined to find what is special, what is good beyond the beautiful blue pools.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.

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