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WE KNOW that selfless doctors and dentists volunteer to help destitute Third World people. But when diminutive Gio-vanna Berardo packed her scissors to visit the poor who live in garbage mountains outside Mexico City, she had a different sort of surgery in mind.

She went -- as she quotes Isaiah -- to give them "a crown of beauty." Her mission: to cut hair.

A local hair stylist whose work has been featured in Cosmopolitan, Woman's Day and Family Circle magazines, Ms. Berardo is known both in Western New York and in Seventh Avenue showrooms. Though she prefers living and working in Amherst, she has been flown in to minister to the tresses of the glitterati, the top models, for photo shoots sometimes as distant as Africa.

In Mexico earlier this year, there was no backstage champagne, no exotic sets, no palm trees -- only the lice-ridden heads of the poorest of the poor.

Yet on her New Year's resolution list, Ms. Berardo has another trip planned this spring to cut the hair of the needy, sponsored by the Operation Serve program of New Covenant Tabernacle in the Town of Tonawanda.

"I used to be so excited to be invited to go to a party at Studio 54 in New York City, but being in Mexico surpasses anything," she says.

At first, the 4-foot-11-inch, 90-pound stylist says the sights and smells of the landfill were staggering.

"When I got off that bus, I looked around me. I didn't know where to begin. I had my little Glemby bag over my shoulder. I was overwhelmed by mountains of garbage. The flies were in the thousands. The stench was beyond anybody's imagination."

Armed with two spritzer bottles (no running water), she went to work.

While a great haircut is not quite as urgent as an appendectomy, Ms. Berardo says pride can be almost as important.

"We're talking about self-esteem here." Her motto: "Look through the coal to find the jewel."

"These children were born in the garbage dumps and will die in the garbage dumps without ever seeing the real world. They perhaps never look at themselves in the mirror. I don't even think they have a mirror." Indeed, Ms. Berardo had to use the bus' rear-view mirror to do her job.

Thousands of "pepinadoras" spend their lives digging through mountains of garbage, searching for clothing and food, outside the world's largest metropolis.

Describing herself simply as a "little hairdresser born in Italy," Ms. Berardo, among the last wave of immigrants to pass through Ellis Island, felt special empathy with these

"We saw a lot of oppression, abuse, physical problems. What hope do they have?"

She tells of her first "client," a little girl named Erica, who challenged her cosmetic skills.

"Her hair was so hard to comb through, it was one of the most difficult haircuts I had to do." After Erica's hair was washed in a basin and styled, she was given a sticker that read "God loves you."

"She came back wearing clean pants, a clean shirt, and she put her little sticker back on," Ms. Berardo recounts.

"When I got done with their haircuts, those children would look at themselves and have such a smile on their faces."

By the end of her 10-day mission, some 30 professionals and other volunteers had teamed up to minister to the Mexicans' medical and aesthetic needs.

Speaking less-than-fluent Spanish, Ms. Berardo was at a loss as to what to chitchat about while she worked on her clients -- an integral part of a hairdresser's art. "And I love to talk," she admits.

"I wondered, what can I talk about to these people?

"So I sang."

Later, the Latin Americans returned not only for more pampering, but also for the senorita's songs.

Despite their poverty, the Mexicans are gifted with natural beauty, sun-warmed skin and flint-black hair.

"They are the most gentle, loving people I've ever met," Ms. Berardo says.

"It was a crash course in humility. I learned that some of the things I used to think so important mean nothing."

The haircut "will grow long again," she concedes. "But I believe the caring will stay with them."

The Rev. Robert Schenck, founder of Operation Serve, says he looks forward to working with Ms. Berardo again next spring.

"The greatest deficit we see there is human dignity," he says. "Giovanna's skills contribute in a large way in rebuilding dignity."

Her battered calendar attests to a busy social and professional life.

"I have been blessed with so much, friends, family. To give back two weeks of my life is nothing, compared to what I've been given," she says, sipping blackberry tea in her pristine all-ivory condominium.

"I traveled to Mexico twice before on vacations. The poverty upset me. I felt there was nothing I could do. So I took my vacations in Palm Beach instead.

"I vowed after my second Mexican vacation, I'd never go back.

"Never say never."

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