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Dress for Success Provides Clothes and More to Low-Income Women Seeking Jobs

Published 01/08/2012
The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC

Bridgette A. Lacy writes about resources for laid-off workers twice a month.

Ashleigh Powell can now envision herself as a career woman.

The laid-off call-center worker felt the change as she was outfitted with a Navy suit, a cream-colored blouse and a pair of understated cream earrings from the Dress for Success Triangle program.

Powell, 26, is going to school to become a medical assistant. She plans on moving from her home in Spring Hope to Raleigh, where she believes there will be more job opportunities.

"I'm trying to keep focused on being a better woman," she says. "You have to look the part. You have to be what they want."

Powell's spirit has been buoyed by Dress for Success, which provides low-income women with free business-appropriate clothing, mentoring and professional development programs. Clients can also participate in the Dress for Success' Going Places Network, which includes help with job preparation and career advancement. The Triangle chapter has boutiques in Raleigh and Durham.

The women are referred by local social service agencies and nonprofit organizations including the Division of Employment Security (formerly the N.C. Employment Security Commission) and community colleges. More than 2,500 women have been helped since the local chapter started in 2008.

Each client receives one interview suit complete with a handbag or business tote, accessories and shoes during her first visit, and once she finds work, she receives enough separates to mix and match for the workweek. Powell met with an image consultant along with a career consultant who helped her with a résumé.

The goal of Dress for Success is to transform the women who participate in the program from the inside out, and that starts with support.

"They have women standing around them that believe in them," says Pat Nathan, the founder of the Triangle chapter of Dress for Success.

"Lots of them have not been getting up and going anywhere," Nathan explains. "They don't see themselves as being worthy of finding a job."

The women Dress for Success serves vary in age, ethnicity and skills. The circumstances that bring them are equally varied: divorce, domestic violence, illness. Some have no idea how to dress for an interview; others have the sophistication but not the means.

One plus-size woman referred from the Housing Authority was wearing a pajama top to job interviews because she didn't have a blouse that properly fit her. Another woman lost her home and possessions to a tornado and needed clothing to look for a job. Another woman was laid off from a state government position and has been searching for work for 10 months and goes to a community college to work on an associate's degree.

They are women like Desiree Smith, 30. She moved to Raleigh from New York City to make a better life for herself and her 2-year-old daughter. She's searching for work as a caregiver. She enjoys serving people with mental and physical disabilities.

The stress of finding something to wear to an interview has been alleviated by Dress for Success. Smith was outfitted with black slacks and a black-patterned blazer. She relished the assistance of the program's staff, which carefully chooses the pieces for the women to try on and then offers feedback about the outfit.

"I've never been here before, but the experience is real positive," she said during a recent visit.

'Under our wing'

Carol Schwartz, the Raleigh operations manager for Dress for Success Triangle, says the staff mentors the women. The clients often call back, seeking advice on answering questions on applications. The staff is available to help the women navigate some of their ups and downs. Sometimes, it takes a year for a client to receive a job, but the victory is so sweet when they do.

"We take them under our wing and help them with whatever their needs are at that time. ... It's our mission," Schwartz says. "We give them back the confidence that has been taken away from them."