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Remembering Rizza Benton & Sydney Eckhoff, pillars of Lansing's LGBTQ community

A photo collage of Rizza Benton and Sydney Ekchoff. Benton is a Black person with light skin and shaved black hair. Sydney Eckhof is a white person with light brown hair.
Rahjah Curtis-Evans
Rizza Benton and Sydney Eckhoff passed away in November and leave a long-lasting impact of inclusion and belonging.

Lansing is saying goodbye to two pillars of its LGBTQ community. 33-year-old Rizza Benton died on Nov. 19 and 31-year-old Sydney Eckhoff died on Nov. 24.

In early 2021 Rizza Benton and Sydney Eckhoff founded Roots Hair Lounge – a small salon with a lofty vision: to reach beyond the roots of hair, and into the nurturing and healing of one’s core self. Rizza was the salon’s hairstylist while Sydney was the salon’s official photographer and Rizza’s right hand.

Ash Ratts first got to know the pair from coming to the salon as a client. Before Roots, he says he didn’t really enjoy getting his hair done.

“Rizza immediately had asked for my pronouns, asked what they could do to make me feel comfortable and gave me the most comforting and best hair experience I've had,” he said.

Ash Ratts a white person with short blue wavy hair stands behind Sydney Eckhoff and Rizza Benton. Sydney, a white-non binary person with a goatee and short wavy light brown hair is smiling and wearing a mustard cardigan with a black undershirt. Sydney is standing next to Benton. Benton is wearing a long sleeve black turtle neck and round glasses. Their hair is shaved with blue tips on the end. Benton is a light skin Black non-binary person.
Courtesy: Ash Ratts
Ash Ratts (left) worked at Roots Hair Lounge alongside Sydney Eckhoff (center) and Rizza Benton (right).

Months after that first haircut Ratts began working at Roots as a hairstylist. He says Rizza and Sydney worked hard to create a space where people of color and LGBTQ+ people could come and receive services by people who looked like them.

“We really, really just wanted to make a comfortable safe community space where everyone would feel safe and comfortable and just want to come back,” he said. “And I feel like we achieved that.”

Roots Hair Lounge was located inside Wild Ferns Wellness. The center provides mental health services and gender-affirming care to marginalized groups.

Wild Ferns Wellness co-founder Rahjah Curtis-Evans says Rizza was more than a hairstylist. She describes them as incredibly in tune with their clients’ needs beyond just getting a haircut. This was especially true for many of Rizza’s trans and nonbinary clients.

“Someone could talk about it in at Roots like ‘I really want to see a therapist but I don’t have insurance”, [Rizza] would reach out to me and say, 'Hey, this person won’t see a therapist because they have no insurance,'” Curtis-Evans explained. “I would [then] sit down with them and make a Medicaid application for them so they can get insurance so they can see a therapist, so they can go through transition.”

Curtis-Evans says demonstrating that kind of care is how Rizza made their mark in the community.

“You're going out of your way to make sure they're going to be okay when you leave – that’s just a different kind of compassion for people,” she added.

Sydney was key in helping Rizza offer compassion for everyone who came to the salon. Ratts remembers being at Roots when a client came in wanting to get her hair shaved after being assaulted. They didn’t hesitate to leave the room to give Rizza privacy with a client going through a tough time.

“So just without even saying anything or being asked to do anything they just left because they knew that that might make the client feel more comfortable,” he said. “And they're just so considerate in that way just everything that they did was just so considerate and gentle.”

And it was Sydney’s sense of humor that made them so fun to be around.

“We would like run around and like just kind of like be goofy and just make jokes together all the time,” Ratts said.

Sydney loved discovering new music, especially from obscure artists. In the weeks and days before Sydney died, they spent a lot of time listening to an album called The Big K Collection from Princess Commodore 64.

"Its like listening to music at a party in the bathroom but at a K-Mart," Ratts explained.

Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the couple was able to grow a successful business. Rizza and Sydney had been grieving the loss of their newborn son River all while parenting their seven-year-old son Ollie. Baby River passed away a few hours after Rizza gave birth to him in November of 2021.

In the months following River’s death, Curtis-Evans remembered how Sydney and Ollie cared for Rizza.

“Rizza would just send a text to Syd with a sad face and they would send a food emoji back and then Ollie would come up with a whole charcuterie board — like that kind of love,” she said.

Rob Sumbler is seen smiling next to Rizza Benton at a wooden table in what appears to be a restaurant. On the other side of the table Sydney Eckhoff and Abby Sumbler are seen smiling at the camera. Abby is holding a baby in their hands.
Courtesy: Rob Sumbler
Ryan Sumbler (front right) and his wife Abby Sumbler (back right) developed a strong friendship with Rizza Benton (front left) and their partner Sydney Eckhoff (back left).

Rob Sumbler has known Rizza since they were 15 years old. He says to keep Rizza and Sydney’s legacy alive, people should strive to lift the voices of those who feel silenced.

“If we can keep doing that and make people feel seen and loved then that would be the best way we can honor Rizza and Syd’s legacy,” he said.

While Roots Hair Lounge has closed its doors, the community plans to continue to remember the couple through the launch of The River Foundation. The foundation will focus on providing resources and support to LGBTQ+ people and people of color grieving the loss of a loved one or struggling with substance abuse.

Wild Ferns Wellness is currently raising funds through their website. The money will go towards the center's providers as they take time off to grieve and to cover the loss of rent from the closure of Roots. Additional funds will go towards getting The River Foundation off the ground.

Music: flower girls in space by Princess Commodore 64 used with permission from artist.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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