"He's a pretty cool dad to do this for me," Emma Morgese, 11, tells PEOPLE
Of all the mysteries Phil Morgese has faced in life, none has been more baffling than the dilemma faced by him and other single dads: What to do about styling their girls’ hair?
When he received full-time custody of his daughter, Emma, then age 1, “I had no clue about how to fix her hair, so I decided to wing it,” Morgese, 34, of Daytona Beach, Florida, tells PEOPLE.
“Because she already had a full head of hair and it was getting in her eyes, I taught myself how to put in little hair clips, and carried them everywhere in my pockets,” he says. “Then I learned about hair gel, and that was a huge victory. I thought, ‘Wow. Now I can do anything.'”
After moving on to ponytails and French braids, it occurred to Morgese, who works in online sales, that other dads could also use a head’s up about hair tips.
So in October 2015, he gave his hobby a new twist and started the Daddy Daughter Hair Factory, a free bi-weekly class held at International Academy in South Daytona, where dads and daughters of all ages can learn how to do everything from detangle long locks to coil hair into buns – and share some valuable bonding time, too.
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The class was an instant hit, and Morgese knew that he was on to something. He has since taught hundreds of dads – mostly single, but some married – to style their daughters’ hair, and has given his lesson plans to fathers in 13 other states so that they can start their own daddy-daughter hair clubs.
“I’m more than happy to share what I’ve learned, mainly because of the fun that the dads and the girls get to have together,” Morgese tells PEOPLE. “The dads become more confident, so that makes them better dads. And the daughters adore their dads even more for taking the time to learn how to do their hair. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
Greg Wickherst, 40, a single dad who recently started his own class in Pueblo, Colorado, says that Phil is an inspiration to dads who don’t know the difference between a “half down” and an up-do.
“It was a struggle at first to get Izzy (his 4-year-old) to keep still, but over time, our styling time became a daily part of our routine,” he tells PEOPLE. “I even started keeping a Facebook album to show Izzy some styles. Then when Phil started up the Daddy Daughter Hair Factory, I thought it would be a brilliant way for me to give back to the city of Pueblo.”
“I can’t stress enough that it’s not just about hair,” adds Wickherst. “What we’re trying to do is build bonds that last a lifetime.”
Josh Wikel, a married nurse from Greenwood, Indiana, with a 4-year-old daughter, Ella Rose, was thrilled to learn about Morgese’s daddy-daughter class on Facebook so that he could discover some new braiding techniques. “Ella Rose and I now huddle round the iPhone while snuggling before bed,” he tells PEOPLE, “looking at pictures for potential styles.”
Now leading his own class, “there’s always a moment where I stand back and simply look at the flurry of activity,” says Wikel. “It’s fun to see the smiles form and watch the bonds strengthen as the braids come together.”
Now that Emma Morgese is 10, with straight brown hair “longer than a horse tail,” her dad enjoys styling her hair into an elaborate French twist.
“I used to bungle that one big time,” he says, “until I learned a cool way to do it with a comb. Now it’s much neater.”
“He’s a pretty cool dad to do this for me,” adds Emma, who is home-schooled by her father. “While he does my hair every morning, we talk about a lot of neat things, like what our dream house would be like, or what kind of cats we like the best. It’s one of my favorite times of the day.”
Emma also acts as Morgese’s model at the Hair Factory classes, patiently sitting while her dad demonstrates the proper way to towel dry hair, use a comb and brush and create masterpieces with elastics and bows.
“It’s definitely brought us closer together,” Morgese says. “When I’m doing Emma’s hair, the rest of the world just kind of shuts out. It’s a nice feeling.”