Of all the mysteries Phil Morgese has faced in life, nothing has come even close to the confusion he had faced when he became a single father and was faced with styling his daughter’s hair for the first time.
Morgese received full-time custody of his daughter, Emma, when she was one year old.
“I had no clue about how to fix her hair, so I decided to wing it,” 34-year-old Morgese, of Daytona Beach, Florida, told 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.’”
The single dad who works in online sales learned quickly, and soon he had already moved on to ponytails and French braids. Then, it dawned on him that he could actually help other dads in a similar predicament.
So in October 2015, Morgese founded the Daddy Daughter Hair Factory, a free bi-weekly class held at the International Academy in South Daytona, where fathers and daughters of all ages can learn how to do everything from detangling locks to coiling hair into buns, while bonding and making friends.
Morgese had an instant hit. He has since taught hundreds of dads – mostly single, but some married – to style their daughters’ hair. He has also given his lesson plans and shared his experience with fathers in 13 other US states so 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,” the 34-year-old told 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 has recently followed in Morgese’s footsteps and started his own class in Pueblo, Colorado, says that Phil is an inspiration to fathers 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,” Wickherst told 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, has a 4-year-old daughter, Ella Rose. He was thrilled when he discovered Morgese’s daddy-daughter class on Facebook because it helped him discover some new braiding techniques. “Ella Rose and I now huddle round the iPhone while snuggling before bed,” he told 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.”
Morgese’s daughter is now 10 years old, with straight brown hair “longer than a horse tail,” and her father just loves 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. “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 different hair styling and care techniques he has learned over the years.
“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.”