(CNN) -- Carey Carter and Mitchell Barnes, owners of the posh Carter Barnes salon in Atlanta, Georgia, have never underestimated the gift of a good blowout.
With just weeks to go before Christmas, after a client rang to say she couldn't afford to get her hair done after losing her job, Carter, Barnes and fellow stylists decided this persistent economic downturn needed a beauty intervention, with free botox, free color and free styling for all.
The salon spread the word, and soon there was an influx of heart-wrenching letters from men and women who were facing tough times: job loss, broken marriages, illnesses.
The stylists reviewed -- and often boo-hooed -- over the letters before narrowing down the hundreds of submissions to 250 people who were desperate to regain some of the confidence only a good cut and color can give, but were unable to afford it.
On that cloudy, misty Monday last week, women and a few men filled the chairs of the salon to be treated to a day of on-the-house pampering, followed up with L'Oreal and Keratase goody bags and photographers preserving the new and improved looks in "after" pictures.
Keira Cannon, a 33-year-old petite mother of one, looked wistful as she waited her turn in the lobby of the Carter Barnes salon. Her hair was pulled back into a nondescript bun, something that clearly pained Cannon because she "used to be fabulous," she said.
That version of herself is from a time when she still had employment as a chef and wasn't scrimping and saving on the one income her partner brings in to take care of her and her young son.
After being told by her employer over a year ago that she needn't return to work after giving birth, the formerly fabulous Cannon has made the adjustments and choices that many across the country have without much thought or complaint. Putting food on the table trumps getting a haircut; paying the heat bill takes precedence over touching up highlights.
Those kinds of small sacrifices, when done repeatedly over months and months, quietly chip away at a person's self-confidence, making job seekers meek when they should be assertive; making the downtrodden shy and embarrassed when they should be bold.
These women are giving up a lot, Carter said, but they don't have to give up style. "We know from doing hair as long as we have that it really does make a difference," he said. "It's more than a feel good thing. It makes her look younger, prettier and more confident."
Confident enough, Yvonne Simmons hoped, to help her land a job.
The 28-year-old Atlanta transplant migrated from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in hopes of finding a better job market a year ago. Six months into a gig as a receptionist, she found herself laid off in a new city that was supposed to be filled with opportunity.
The stress of looking for a job -- any job, Simmons said -- in an employment wasteland became so much of a burden that her hair began to fall out.
At first, she didn't even pay attention. "I've been working since I was 16, and to come somewhere where the opportunities were much greater than in Pennsylvania, I expected more and it wasn't happening," Simmons said. "My lights were getting cut off, my gas was getting cut off. Even though I was losing my hair, it was the last thing on my mind."
But then, a few months into her futile search for work, Simmons realized she only had one small section of hair still brushing near her shoulders -- the rest had broken off all the way up to her ears.
Depressed and embarrassed, Simmons thought the only recourse would be to cut it herself, but that only made a bad situation worse.
"It would probably cost about $60 or $65 for me to get it done professionally, but I couldn't afford that," she said as tears began to fall from the memory. "My lights were off when I cut my hair -- I had to cut it in the sunlight to see."
She was so ashamed of her botched locks that she started wearing a scarf everywhere she went -- and felt like she couldn't dare seek employment looking the way she did.
"I couldn't go out and apply for jobs, because there was nothing I could do with my hair. It was just ... there. I would try to curl it, flat iron it and it would just stick out. It wasn't working."
Simmons happened to catch a news segment about Carter Barnes' day of beauty and she immediately submitted her story. December 14, as she sat shrouded in a black cape in front of the sink, she was content. Her hair had been freshly cut into a cute, even pixie, but more importantly, she looks the part of an employable person once more.
"Once my hair is done, I can go out on interviews and not worry about how I look," Simmons said happily. "I don't have to worry about if the flat iron worked in the back or if it's uneven. It's a huge weight lifted."
Even for those still employed, Carter Barnes' gift of glamour came at exactly the right time.
Michelle Moreno, a 38-year-old from Peachtree City, Georgia, had a gorgeously colored, lush new bob as she walked out of the salon. Moreno had also nominated herself for the beauty boost, thinking it would be kismet if she was chosen, because she'd already scheduled that Monday as a vacation day from her work as a corporate travel agent.
Despite having a full-time job, the past few years have still been horrible, Moreno said.
"My husband walked out, I have an autistic son and a terminally ill mother living with me. Life has just been overwhelming," she said. "I was financially in the toilet and emotionally in the dumps, and you get so down that you don't want to do anything anymore."
Before her husband left, Moreno kept up her appearance. She went to the gym a few times a week, she went to the salon to get her hair done and kept her hands manicured. But once she was on her own, faced with caring for both her mother and her 15-year-old son on one income, her maintenance routine came to a crashing halt. Her hair turned into a mousy brown mass that hung limply past her shoulders, taunting her when she would try to style it in the morning.
"The worst time of the day for me is blow-drying my hair, because I have to stare in the mirror for 10, 15 minutes straight, doing my hair. That's when the negativity comes out," Moreno remembered.
There was no escaping her hair in the Carter Barnes salon, made up of mirror-paneled room after room. Yet as soon as Moreno's stylist pulled the towel off her washed and colored hair, she felt a change.
"Once my stylist started cutting it, it was like bad feelings falling off," Moreno said. "The ickiness just -- boom -- fell to the ground with my hair. It's crazy to equate hair with emotions, but that's truly how it felt."
That bouncy auburn bob is more than a haircut for Moreno -- it's her first step toward a new attitude and a new way of treating herself despite her hardships.
"It makes me realize no matter what else is going on, I'm still worth it. I put myself behind everybody for so long, I thought it doesn't count. Nothing for me is going to matter. Why should I do anything for me, everyone else needs things. I don't need anything," Moreno said. "But I do."
The gift that Carter Barnes gave with a little hair dye and a few scissor snips inspired Moreno. She said she planned to head to her church's food pantry after her appointment and pay the good deed forward.
"They've done so much for me," Moreno said, "how can I not?"