A Trumbull woman got the Valentine’s Day surprise of a lifetime this year, being celebrated on Harry Connick Jr.’s television talk show. Tanisha Akinloye, founder of the non-profit organization Empowering Through Beauty, was interviewed on “Harry” and the host then presented her with a $10,000 donation.

“I was completely shocked,” Akinloye said. “My kids had contacted the show to recognize Empowering Through Beauty.”

The subterfuge had begun the week before, when the “Harry” show called and asked Tanisha to join other women being recognized for good work, emphasizing that they might not actually speak with the Grammy Award-winning host. Akinloye left her family at home on what she described as a typical morning, with teenagers still sleeping, and boarded a train to New York City.

“While I sat in the audience, Harry began to introduce a special person and directed attention to the screen on stage,” Akinloye said. There, on screen, Tanisha saw her children. There were no other women being recognized.

The experience of joining Connick on stage, with her children, still brings tears.

“I still can’t believe it,” she said. “My kids and I … we’re forever in that moment.”

In October 2010, Akinloye was a beauty salon owner and mother of three children. While styling her clients, she listened as many related challenges they faced, including illness, domestic violence, and a lack of money, to name just a few. She realized that she had the strength and resources to reach out and help others.

After receiving counsel from her pastor, this self-described “faith-based girl” established her non-profit, providing beauty makeovers to people in need of an improved self-image.

“Everything seemed to just fall into place,” she said. “I just kept hearing that word over and over, serve, serve. I still can’t believe it, I did this … me!”

In the early days of Empowering Through Beauty, Akinloye was on her own, and on her feet, visiting shelters and rescue missions to provide free hair styling to women, children, and men who could not afford such services.

“The work made me feel whole,” she said. And soon, she received help in her efforts to help others. After four years on her own, she began to receive support from other salons in the area as a number of local businesses began welcoming her clients. She also began expanding her work to include workshops and seminars on topics from faith and self-confidence to job skills and even human trafficking.

Empowering Through Beauty also has begun hosting an annual event providing food, job training, and HIV testing.

“I just want people to feel good for a day,” she said.

In addition to her local efforts, the North Carolina native established a leadership program that provides workshops, in two locations, every two weeks. These workshops also provide makeovers, job skills and health education.

So what’s next for Akinloye? The donation made by Harry Connick Jr. will allow Empowering Through Beauty to continue to serve those in need, she said.

“The work goes on, and I want to empower other salons to reach out. I want to make Harry happy,” she said.

She also hopes her story moves people to believe in themselves, above all else.

“Go for it, be a light and pay it forward,” she said.