ST. PETERSBURG — It’s late Friday afternoon and Kenyatta Rucker is sitting on a bench on S 21st Street, talking to a man calling from jail.
She is three blocks from the house where she grew up. Behind her is a one-story building. It is painted black, with four lime green doors.
The door to her right leads to a salon that offers nail and facial treatments. To his left is the entrance to a bail office – the place where people call for help on the worst day.
Both companies belong to him. In his mind, that makes some sense. Both are products of a larger mission to care for her community — one she knows, firsthand, is in need.
“We’ll get the bond and everything will be settled,” she calmly told the caller, scratching her neck with a manicured fingernail. “But there’s no way to wait while they process him in jail.”
The caller says he understands. She says she will put the papers in order. They agree to speak again soon.
She checks the time, then turns to the living room. Inside, the towels are warm. A mixture of meditation plays. In five minutes, a client will arrive for a facial, and Rucker will take off her figurative maid hat and put on her literal latex gloves.
“There’s the Kenyatta sureties, and then there’s the Kenyatta spa,” she says with a smirk.
Her grandparents are from Georgia and you can hear it in her voice.
“Guess it’s time to switch gears.”
She knows what you’re probably wondering.
How does a 41-year-old beautician and mother of four end up with a bonding business right next to a salon?
She was brought to bail out of necessity. As a young single mother trying to support her children some 20 years ago, she was hired to do clerical duties at one of St. Pete’s oldest bond offices.
In the beginning, work was a means to an end. But soon: “With the stroke of a pen and the right papers, I was able to release someone from jail and bring them back to their family,” Rucker said.
The more time she spent with her clients, the more she saw work as a way to connect with people at a pivotal time. In that awkward moment after a bad decision was made, perhaps out of desperation or lack of direction, her phone rang.
In 2010, she opened her own practice.
If your perception of the bond industry was formed by watching late-night episodes of “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” Rucker says leave it at the door.
(Bounty hunting is illegal in Florida, but that’s not really the point.)
“It’s more like fishing,” she says. “Boring some days, exciting others.”
Every office works differently, but Rucker sees his work as part of a larger restoration process. She knows she’s not going to fix a broken system on her own, or solve poverty, or racism, or cure addiction. Instead, she focuses on small interactions.
Rucker is selective – she avoids potential clients with violent charges or a history of missing court dates.
When she agrees to take on a client, she agrees to a relationship – a relationship that involves weekly check-ins and often life counseling.
“Sometimes they don’t have anyone,” Rucker said, sitting at her desk. Toys are strewn across the office floor – traces of her 3-year-old.
“They’re looking for someone who can point them in the right direction,” she says.
She does her best to be that person for her clients, but also for her children and for herself.
This means that life can sometimes seem messy. It looks like we’re training with a virtual headset while her 10-year-old son teases her in the background. Sounds like trying to eat healthy, but giving in to Chick-fil-A’s drive-thru on a busy afternoon.
There are bad days when she has to apprehend someone. The long days when her job forces her to overcome her shyness, to choose to be bold, because people need her and she can’t let them down.
TO CHANGE THE MENTALITIES
Rucker’s goal is to change minds, to get people to recognize their worth and ground themselves in hope.
She helped a client enroll in school. Another got his license back after Rucker told him about a program that forgives traffic charges. She sees him from time to time at the grocery store and he lets her know that he is fine.
“I cling to those wins in the tough times,” she says.
Helping others heal made Rucker realize that she had to heal herself.
His father was largely gone during his childhood. Her earliest memory of him is visiting him in prison. She also saw her brother and uncles being locked up behind bars.
It took its toll, it was hard to comprehend, but as Rucker opened the door to past trauma, she felt herself transform. His job too. This is where the beauty salon comes in.
That was about four years ago, and Rucker had just started opening up to friends. She struggled with depression and abandonment issues that had persisted since childhood.
At first it was difficult – she felt vulnerable and worried about how she would be seen.
But soon, small conversations turned into larger group meetings, and she connected with others in her community who understood.
Rucker heard familiar stories and common needs. People, especially women, were exhausted. They carried the weight of their family, the stress of their neighborhood.
“SHE WINS TOTALLY”
The experience prompted her to start an informal support group. A world where women could share their ambitions, join in projects and encourage self-care.
It materialized in the form of a Facebook page titled “She totally wins”.
The group grew, and so did Rucker’s confidence. She arranged for guest speakers to meet the group, posted beauty tutorials and hosted girls’ nights.
In 2020, she transformed it into a non-profit organization for the welfare and empowerment of women. Shortly after, she opened her salon. She called it “Soo Sweet Skin & Nails” – named after her grandmother, whose demeanor was as sweet as her peach cobblers.
“How do you pass bails to nail salons?” Rucker said. “You heal.”
Her tires creak on the gravel as she navigates the crowded terrain. She finds a seat in the back, removes the key from the ignition.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Rucker sings into his iPhone. It’s a Tuesday in July and the sun is beating down. “It’s a charity event and we’re raising money for a healing bus.”
The phone is stuck between her ear and her shoulder – her hands are busy assembling a stroller and buckling her youngest.
She grabs a pile of postcard-sized flyers from the backseat, then slams the car door shut with her hip.
“I hope to see you there,” she coos to the caller.
It’s 6:30 p.m. and youth football training is underway in St. Petersburg.
Whistles sound and soccer balls are raced through as Rucker – in a long white robe – heads for the pitch.
In one corner, a pack of 6-year-old children in epaulettes fall, then explode like popping grains. Somewhere in the sweaty swarm, her 10-year-old son is running laps, but Rucker heads for the mothers clinging to the periphery.
“Hi, can I give you a flyer? Rucker hands a card to a woman in the stands. “We have a fashion show coming up to promote self-care.”
The seated woman scrutinizes him skeptically, then lights him up.
“Hey, I think I know you!” she says. “What was your name again?”
“I am Kenyatta Rucker.”
“I’ll be there,” said the woman.
Rucker zags from person to person.
The idea of the fashion show had struck her six months earlier.
A show would be a chance for his Deuces community to come together. It would bring positivity and glamor – give new meaning to the phrase “good vibes”.
It would also be a fundraiser.
For nearly a year, Rucker has been working to raise funds to purchase a “healing bus.” It is his vision of a trailer from which spa and therapy services could be provided on wheels to members of the community for little or no cost. It already has service providers lined up.
“It’s about beautifying yourself and the community,” Rucker thought to himself, pausing to fan himself with the flyers. “Heal yourself totally, from the inside out and from the outside in.”
When the flyers run out and practice ends, she spreads her empty arms like an actor at the curtain call.
The venue is booked, sponsors secured and pre-registrations are pouring in.
Lit by the glow of her iPad, Rucker writes down her aspirations.
She doesn’t need to be at work for five more hours, but early morning wake-ups become routine.
It’s not anxiety, but a sense of urgency that wakes her with a start. Ideas hit like freight trains and she scrambles to record them before they disappear.
As the sun rises and light streams into her home, she takes a deep breath and recites an affirmation.
“Miracles happen when you discover your true self.”
Soon her children will be up and she will be brought back to the chores of the day ahead.
But for now, while the others sleep, Kenyatta Rucker is doing what she has always done.
She dreams without reserve.
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