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From bail bonds to beauty salon, St. Pete woman lifts up community

Kenyatta Rucker is on a mission to promote self-care. Next up? A healing bus. First, she has to raise the funds.
Kenyatta Rucker walks from her bail bonds office over to her spa to set it up before a client comes in on Thursday, June 9, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
Kenyatta Rucker walks from her bail bonds office over to her spa to set it up before a client comes in on Thursday, June 9, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]
Published Jul. 22

ST. PETERSBURG — It’s late afternoon on a Friday and Kenyatta Rucker is sitting on a bench on 21st Street S, talking to a man who’s calling from jail.

She’s three blocks from the house where she grew up. Behind her is a single-story building. It’s painted black, with four lime green doors.

The door to her right leads to a salon that offers nail and facial services. To her left is the entrance to a bail bonds office — the place people call for help on their worst day.

Both businesses belong to her. In her mind, this makes a certain kind of sense. Both are a product of a larger mission to care for her community — one she knows, first-hand, is in need.

“We’ll get the bond and everything taken care of,” she says calmly to the caller, scratching her neck with a manicured nail. “But there’s no way around waiting while they process it at the jail.”

The caller says he understands. She says she’ll get paperwork in order. They agree to talk again soon.

Click.

She checks the time, then turns to the salon. Inside, towels are warming. A meditation mix is playing. In five minutes, a client will arrive for a facial, and Rucker will take off her figurative bondswoman hat and pull on her literal latex gloves.

“There’s bail bonds Kenyatta, and then there’s spa Kenyatta,” she says with a smirk.

Her grandparents are from Georgia and you can hear it in her voice.

“Guess it’s time to change gears.”

• • •

She knows what you’re probably wondering.

How does a 41-year-old aesthetician and mother of four end up with a bail bonds business right next to a salon?

She was brought to bail bonds by necessity. As a young, single mother looking to provide for her children some 20 years ago, she was hired to do clerical tasks at one of the oldest bonds offices in St. Pete.

At first, the job was a means to an end. But soon: “With the stroke of a pen and the right paperwork, I was able to release someone from jail and get them back to their family,” Rucker said.

The more time she spent with clients, the more she saw the work as a way to connect with people at a pivotal point. In that delicate moment after a bad decision was made, maybe out of desperation or a lack of direction, her phone would ring.

In 2010, she opened an office of her own.

Kenyatta Rucker responds to emails and text messages during a ten minute break in a facial appointment at her nail spa on Thursday, June 9, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
Kenyatta Rucker responds to emails and text messages during a ten minute break in a facial appointment at her nail spa on Thursday, June 9, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]
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If your perception of the bail bonds industry was formed while watching late-night episodes of “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” Rucker says to leave it at the door.

(Bounty hunting is illegal in Florida, but that’s not really the point.)

“It’s more like fishing,” she said. “Boring some days, exciting others.”

Each office operates differently, but Rucker sees her work as part of a larger restorative process. She knows she’s not going to fix a broken system by herself, not going to solve poverty, or racism, or heal addiction. Instead, she focuses on the small interactions.

Rucker is selective — she avoids prospective clients with violent charges or a history of missing court dates.

When she agrees to take on a client, she agrees to a relationship — one that involves weekly check-ins, and often, life advice.

“Sometimes they don’t have anyone,” Rucker says, sitting at her desk. Toys are strewn across the office floor — traces of her 3-year-old.

“They’re looking for someone who can steer them in the right direction,” she says.

She does her best to be that someone for her clients, but also for her children, and for herself.

That means life can look messy sometimes. It looks like working out with a virtual headset while her 10-year-old teases her in the background. It looks like trying to eat healthy, but giving in to the Chick-fil-A drive-thru on a busy afternoon. There are the bad days when she has to apprehend somebody. The long days when her work means pushing through her shyness, choosing to be bold, because people need her and she can’t let them down.

A sign in the facial room at Kenyatta Rucker's spa on Thursday, June 9, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
A sign in the facial room at Kenyatta Rucker's spa on Thursday, June 9, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

Rucker’s focus is on changing mindsets, getting people to recognize their value and anchor themselves in hope.

She helped one client enroll in school. Another got his license back after Rucker told him about a program that forgives traffic fees. She sees him in the grocery store from time to time, and he lets her know he’s doing well.

“I hold on to those victories through the hard times,” she says.

Helping others heal led Rucker to realize she had healing to do herself.

Her father was largely gone during her childhood. Her earliest memory of him is visiting him in jail. She’s watched her brother and uncles be locked behind bars, too.

It’s taken its toll, been hard to understand, but as Rucker has opened the door to past trauma, she’s felt herself transform. Her work has too. That’s where the beauty salon comes in.

• • •

It was about four years ago, and Rucker had just started opening up to friends. She was struggling with depression, and abandonment issues that lingered from childhood.

At first, it was hard — she felt vulnerable and worried about how she’d be seen.

But soon, small conversations grew into larger group meet-ups, and she connected with others in her community who understood.

Rucker heard familiar stories and common needs. People, especially women, were exhausted. They were carrying the weights of their families, the stresses of their neighborhood.

The experience prompted her to create an informal support group. One where women could share ambitions, partner on projects and encourage self-care.

Kenyatta Rucker paints a papaya pumpkin mask onto her client and friend, Shundra Allison of St. Petersburg, 42, during a facial appointment on Thursday, June 9, 2022 in St. Petersburg. "We believe the same things, especially about empowering women," said Allison.
Kenyatta Rucker paints a papaya pumpkin mask onto her client and friend, Shundra Allison of St. Petersburg, 42, during a facial appointment on Thursday, June 9, 2022 in St. Petersburg. "We believe the same things, especially about empowering women," said Allison. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

It came to fruition in the form of a Facebook page called, ‘She Wins Totally.’

The group grew, and so did Rucker’s confidence. She arranged for guest speakers to meet with the group, posted beauty tutorials and organized girls’ nights. In 2020, she transformed it into a non-profit for women’s wellness and empowerment. Shortly after, she opened her salon. She called it ‘Soo Sweet Skin & Nails’ — named for her grandmother, whose demeanor was as sugary as her peach cobblers.

“How do you get from bail bonds to nail salons?” Rucker said. “You heal.”

• • •

Her tires crunch over gravel as she navigates the crowded lot. She finds a spot toward the back, pulls the key from the ignition.

“Yes, that’s right,” Rucker sings into her iPhone. It’s a Tuesday in July and the sun is pounding. “It’s a charity event and we’re raising money for a healing bus.”

The phone is tucked between her ear and shoulder — her hands are busy assembling a stroller and buckling in her youngest.

Kenyatta Rucker hands out fliers for a fashion show fundraiser during a youth football practice in St. Petersburg, Fl. Rucker is raising money to purchase a "healing bus" that will provide spa and therapy services to community members for little to no cost.
Kenyatta Rucker hands out fliers for a fashion show fundraiser during a youth football practice in St. Petersburg, Fl. Rucker is raising money to purchase a "healing bus" that will provide spa and therapy services to community members for little to no cost. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]

She grabs a stack of postcard-sized fliers from the backseat, then bumps the car door closed with a hip.

“I sure hope to see you there,” she coos to the caller.

Click.

It’s 6:30 p.m. and youth football practice is underway in St. Petersburg.

Whistles sound and footballs are hiked as Rucker — in a white maxi-dress — makes her way onto the field.

In one corner, a pack of 6-year-olds in shoulder pads drop, then explode up like popping kernels. Somewhere in the swarm of sweat, her 10-year-old son is running laps, but Rucker beelines for mothers hanging on the periphery.

“Hi, can I give you a flier?” Rucker extends a card to a woman on the bleachers. “We have a fashion show coming up to promote self-care.”

The seated woman scans it skeptically, then lights up.

“Hey, I think I know you!” she says. “What was your name again?”

“I’m Kenyatta Rucker.”

“I’ll be there,” the woman says.

Kenyatta Rucker hands out fliers for a fashion show fundraiser during a youth football practice in St. Petersburg, Fl. Rucker is raising money to purchase a "healing bus" that will provide spa and therapy services to community members for little to no cost.
Kenyatta Rucker hands out fliers for a fashion show fundraiser during a youth football practice in St. Petersburg, Fl. Rucker is raising money to purchase a "healing bus" that will provide spa and therapy services to community members for little to no cost. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]

Rucker zags from person to person.

The idea for the fashion show had struck her six months earlier.

A show would be a chance for her Deuces community to come together. It’d bring positivity and glamour — give fresh meaning to the phrase “good vibes.”

It’d also be a fundraiser.

For almost a year, Rucker has been working to raise money for the purchase of a “healing bus.” It’s her vision for a trailer from which spa and therapy services could be delivered on wheels to community members for little to no cost. She already has service providers lined up.

“It’s about beautifying yourself and the community,” Rucker reflects, while taking a pause to fan herself with the fliers. “Healing yourself totally, from the inside out and the outside in.”

When the fliers run out and the practice ends, she spreads her empty arms wide like an actor at curtain call.

Kenyatta Rucker embraces her son, Archilles McKinnon, 10, during a youth football practice in St. Petersburg, Fl. Her son Kymani McKinnon, 3, rests in his stroller.
Kenyatta Rucker embraces her son, Archilles McKinnon, 10, during a youth football practice in St. Petersburg, Fl. Her son Kymani McKinnon, 3, rests in his stroller. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]
• • •

The venue is booked, the sponsors secured, and pre-registrations are pouring in.

Lit by the glow of her iPad, Rucker jots down aspirations.

It’s just past 4 a.m.

She doesn’t need to be at work for another five hours, but early-morning wakeups are becoming a routine.

It’s not anxiety, but a feeling of urgency that jolts her awake. Ideas hit like freight trains, and she scrambles to record them before they disappear.

When you heal childhood trauma, you no longer operate in the fear that caused that trauma.

Other mornings, the plain white background of the notes app populates with ambitions and plans. There’s always a new goal, more to manifest, more to give.

A painting her niece made for her hangs up in Kenyatta Rucker's bail bonds office Thursday, June 9, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
A painting her niece made for her hangs up in Kenyatta Rucker's bail bonds office Thursday, June 9, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

As the sun rises and light pours into her home, she takes a deep breath and recites an affirmation.

“Miracles happen when you discover your true self.”

Soon, her kids will be up and she’ll be pulled back to the tasks of the day ahead.

But for now, while others sleep, Kenyatta Rucker does what she always has.

She dreams with no reservation.

• • •

To learn more about She Wins Totally, and get involved: https://www.shewinstotally.org/

Join She Wins Totally on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/492601187933866

Get tickets to the fashion show on Sunday July 24 from 4 to 7 p.m. or make a donation towards the healing bus at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/she-wins-totally-the-total-upgrade-3-day-event-tickets-360236566267

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing. You can reach Lauren Peace at lpeace@tampabay.com.

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