A local hairstylist lives by the phrase “just keep swimming.” You probably recognize it from the animated movie Finding Nemo.
Twenty-five-year-old Michael Rockafellow has it tattooed on his chest so he can see it every morning when he looks in the mirror.
Rockafellow was born with one arm and was constantly told he can't do things by friends and even family. Until one night, he met a woman, who he calls his angel on earth. She pushed him to pursue his passion of becoming a hairstylist.
"I always wanted to do what people told me I couldn't do, because I believed I could," explained Rockafellow.
Something incredibly inspiring is happening inside The Boulevard Salon in Webster Groves, Mo.
"Michael does it effortlessly with one hand," explained the salon’s co-owner Abigail Culleton.
Rockafellow just completed 3,000 hours for his apprenticeship putting him on his way to becoming a licensed hair stylist. He's doing it with one arm.
He said, "You know having one arm makes you really tough because that's the first thing people go for always, is to make fun of you."
Rockafellow was born this way after he says his birth mother struggled with alcoholism.
"You know my mom went through a hard time and I you know accept that, and I’ve moved past that. I’m happy that I’m still here," he said.
When Today in St. Louis’ Allie Corey met with Rockafellow at the salon in Webster Groves, his angel on earth as he calls her, signed off on his paperwork. Abigail Culleton’s signature officially released him as her student.
Holding back happy tears, Rockafellow said, "Today I get to smile because I completed 3,000 hours, it’s awesome."
It’s a bittersweet milestone for Rockafellow, who at times, didn't believe he could do it. He credits much of his success to Culleton. Rockafellow says she helped pay for his supplies for cosmetology school. She bought him clothes and gave him a job. She did all this, he says, while pushing him to keep moving forward in pursuing his passion.
"If it wasn't for Abby, I could potentially be homeless because she's always given me a job," said Rockafellow.
Culleton cuts hair in the chair beside him at The Boulevard. She served as Rockafellow’s constant support system. Little does he know, he inspires her in the same way.
Culleton said, "We can't complain on our toughest days watching what Michael does. It’s just amazing."
Rockafellow was turned away from four cosmetology schools, but he kept swimming, and
the fifth one was the charm.
"I went in there and I said I want to sign up as a normal student. I don't want any questions asked. And they said done," he explained.
After that, came long hours at the salon learning how to cut, color, and style with one arm.
"Nobody told my I would be able to do a perm or foils and I figured out how to do it myself," he explained.
"He does great hair," said Kim Ratliffe.
Ratliffe says she loves her hair just as much as the experience she has when she’s in Rockafellow’s chair.
"I kind of connect with Michael. He’s just an amazing guy. He has a lot to give people and he has a lot to offer," explained Ratliffe.
Culleton said, "He's inspired clients and other stylists that you know this is what I’m doing. If I can do this, you can do this."
Rockafellow continues to work at The Boulevard Salon on Big Bend Road while studying for his cosmetology boards. Keeping his eye on the end goal, he’s teaching others, and himself, that anything is possible. If you believe in yourself and have the support of people who love you by your side.
"I was put here for a reason I believe to show other people that no matter what it’s ok. It’s going to be ok," he smiled through tears.