Monday, September 28, 2009

Free Suits Foster Confidence, Boost Self-Esteem

Non-profit Ensures Recipients Give Back

In today’s job market, even if you have a college degree and years of experience, competition is fierce among unemployed professionals. Just getting an interview can seem like a milestone of a turning point. When the call comes for an interview, most job seekers own the right suit to at least impress a potential employer.

What if you know what to wear to the interview but look in your closet and hang your head because you don’t even own the basic professional attire? For some, it’s unconscionable to imagine being in such an embarrassing position. However, it’s a heartbreaking reality for nearly 200 unemployed women a month, who visit Dress for Success, in DC. An overwhelming majority of the organization’s clients are welfare recipients serious about stepping into the workforce. Caseworkers refer the women to Dress for Success . “The women get three free suits, a pair of shoes, jewelry and accessories on their first trip, says Melissa Frazier, a Dress for Success counselor.

Dress for Success is a national non-profit organization. The DC Chapter is like a community closet and help center. Through a number of in-house programs, clients give thanks by giving back. Career training seminars, GED classes, as well as a small computer room are all available and free. However, successful clients are rewarded and must pay-it-forward. “If they get a job, they get another free suit and they have to join the professional women’s group here,” says Frazier.

Members of the group support each other through monthly meetings, where they openly discuss issues women new to the workplace may find exhausting. So far, 69 women are members. They volunteer at area homeless shelters and help with school supply drives. “We do this to help the women not only look good in their new suits but it’s also an opportunity for them to work on their inner-self,” says Frazier.

An experience in the late 90s with a welfare recipient encouraged Yvonne Williams to volunteer. At the time, Williams was a State Department employee training a new hire. “She (the new hire) came to the department through the welfare-to-work program and she was a real hard worker,” says Williams. Williams is now a retiree and says the welfare-to-work employee has been promoted several times. “She made such an impression on me that I wanted to do something to help others in her situation,” says Williams.

Like most non-profits across the country, Dress for Success has seen a substantial spike in clients. In 2008, about 100 women a month between ages 18 and 34 came looking for help. This year, the number has doubled and some clients are as old as 50. The increasing demand is constantly a challenge for supply. Several days a week, volunteers try to keep up. They sort out and organize hundreds of used skirts, blouses and women’s suits in all sizes. “As fast as we get donations in, they’re out the door,” says Frazier.

Donations come from residents, small-businesses and some high-end retail stores. Kathy Sheehy, one of a handful of volunteers at Dress for Success, says it’s instrumental for Dress for Success to be able to fill a financial gap. “A lot of people just don’t’ have $300 to spend on a suit,” says Kathy Sheehy, who plans to open a personal shopping business in DC. The organization’s greatest need now is for fall and winter clothing. Plus sizes are extremely difficult to keep in stock, as well as black pumps in large sizes. While Dress for Success is in need of everything from blouses to new pantyhose, Frazier offers a word of caution to anyone considering donating. “If you wouldn’t wear it to a job interview, don’t donate it.”

For more information and to find a Dress for Success center near you, log on to You can call the Washington, DC office at (202) 269-4805.

Please forward all comments about this article to Maniko Barthelemy at

Monday, September 21, 2009

Gifted Hands Sculpt Unforgettable Cakes

Entrepreneur Gambles on New Orleans

Starting a business is not easy and starting over after losing your home and your business is even tougher. Three days a week, a New Orleans small business owner turns her kitchen into a world-class bakery. If you can think it, chances are, Kimberly Gibson can make flour, eggs, milk, oil and a few secret ingredients look exactly, if not better than the design you had in mind. “My most popular cake is the castle cake for girls and the Spiderman 3-D cake for boys,” says Gibson.

In essence, you can call Gibson, owner of Kute Kreations and Kakes by Kimberly, a cake sculptor and artist. The use of the letter “k” in place of “c” is Gibson’s own salute to the pride she takes in her name. As for her skills, you can take one look at her cakes and see, Gibson’s not an average baker.
“I like seeing the amazement on people’s faces,” says Gibson. From carefully crafting a colorful ring of edible baby bottles to a meticulously designed pink ballerina dress and even a Disney themed castle, Gibson just thinks well outside of the box.

She’s been in the kitchen putting a signature twist on incredible edible sculptures for 18 years. “It began as a way to earn extra money and have fun,” says Gibson. “I remember the first cake I made, it was in the shape of a baby and I thought it was the best cake in the world,” she adds. The cake that stared it all came from a box and was for her daughter’s first birthday party.

Soon after the party, Gibson’s phone began ringing and she wanted to make her cakes stand out from the rest. “When I saw that people were paying $80 to $90 for plain sheet cakes from local bakeries and chain grocery stores, I got busy,” says Gibson. To compete with big businesses, Gibson invested in herself. “I enrolled in cake decorating classes and bought instructional DVDs, watched them and went to work,” says Gibson.

In a matter of months, her client base quickly expanded to include R & B artists like R. Kelly and record companies like Cash Money Records. Around town, local universities and police departments routinely put in orders too. In 2005, all of Gibson’s supplies and her home disappeared, when Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans.

For less than a year, Gibson made a small town in Colorado her home. The entire time there, she says she weighed every risk and reward any entrepreneur would consider, when it comes to launching a small business. Despite New Orleans’ ongoing obvious struggles to rebuild bigger and better, Gibson took a gamble on the Big Easy. “I came back with nothing but I love New Orleans. It’s a great place to have a business because somebody’s going to have a party for anything,” says Gibson.

Four years after Hurricane Katrina, a lot of what makes New Orleans unique, is on some level back. Seasonal music and food festivals, sporting events, conventions and of course, Mardi Gras pull in thousands of tourists. Small-businesses like Gibson’s benefit substantially when there’s a big event in town. However, they have to strategically develop a financial cushion of support, to stay in business during slow periods in the city.

Gibson, who’s a single mother, works full-time as a social worker. Part-time, she advertises at local day care centers, in neighborhood circulars, and reinvests at least 50 percent of her cake business earnings back in the business. The payoff is encouraging. It’s been three years, since Gibson returned home. Getting business back to pre-Katrina levels and higher has been a bit of a challenge, but she’s not discouraged. “People are calling me now, instead of calling chain grocery stores or bakeries,” says Gibson.

Her cakes, carefully crafted from the flavor, to the design, icing and presentation, cost $100 to $600. Gibson’s dream is to take Kute Kreations and Kakes by Kimberly to the next level. “I want to franchise my business.”

For more information on Kute Kreations and Kakes by Kimberly, log on to

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Monday, September 14, 2009

First Movie Role, Lasting Impression

Perry movie makes millions, creates star

A movie has tremendous power. It can twist and turn our minds and emotions in ways we don’t generally discuss with strangers. Whether cast members give us a flashback of a hurtful, happy or hysterically interesting time in our lives, a great movie can also pour over the moviegoer a connection with a crucial character. In Tyler Perry’s latest box office hit “I Can Do Bad All by Myself”, the person on screen who tugs at the hearts of everyone is 16-year-old Jennifer. “She brought tears to my eyes,” says Derek Easton.

From the moment she hits the screen, you can tell the teenager has gone through a lot. “That little girl had such a bad attitude. She had too much responsibility for her age,” says Frances Makle. The death of Jennifer’s crack addicted mother left the teenager and her brothers to live with their grandmother. Later in the movie, the grandmother dies too. The children end up living with an aunt, who initially detests becoming an instant mother of three. Playing the role of the aunt is Oscar-nomineeTaraji P. Henson.
Hope Wilson plays the role of the teenager who’s the sole symbol of love, stability and trust for her young siblings. “I’m really grateful. He (Perry) gives people a shot. He doesn’t hesitate to take someone and give them a chance to show to the world they have it, says Wilson.
In a way, Wilson’s ability to deliver a flawless performance is quite shocking, on Hollywood’s talent measuring scale. Aside from a few sporadic TV roles, the Nigerian native has a year of professional training. “I’m beyond excited,” says Wilson. “I’m still pinching myself because I always wanted a career in film and in television and to have a lead role, I wouldn’t have even dared asked for such a thing,” she adds.

Intense classical and theatrical performance training at the elite London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art nurtured Wilson’s acting desire and gift. Life lessons helped her wow casting directors and become Jennifer. “My grandmother died when my mother was only three, so she lived her life on guard all the time and I thought that’s how you were supposed to live, says Wilson. “Later in life I learned if you don’t change, all that anger just makes you a bitter person.”

A few years ago, a decision to change directions professionally put Wilson on the path to finding her way on-screen. “If you feel like you want to do something, you have to really do it. Don’t wait for validation. It has to be almost non-negotiable and run through your blood,” she says. Wilson’s pursuit of happiness as an actress came at the expense of another dream. After graduating high school at 15, she set high goals. “I wanted to be a doctor,” says Wilson.
During her senior year in college, Wilson could no longer ignore her urge to break into the entertainment industry. “I’ve been acting since I was about three. I would watch soap operas and reenact the scenes from the shows, movies or anything I saw on TV or I’d try to reenact something I read in a book,” says Wilson. She put her science books away and headed to London, hoping to return to California skilled enough to find work. “I didn’t want to look back on my life and regret anything,” says Wilson. Judging from LAMDA’s training and the reaction from fans, Wilson’s decision was the right career move. “She did a wonderful job,” says Sam Harris, of Wilson’s performance. “I could not tell this was her first time,” she added. As much as her fans adore her work this first time around, Wilson appreciates them as well. “I want them to understand that they are valued as an audience,” says Wilson.

According to some reports, “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” grossed around $24 million over opening weekend. The thousands of fans who hit theaters across the country, likely came out to see stars like Taraji P. Henson, Mary J. Blige and Gladys Knight. After seeing the movie, some are now ready to add Hope Wilson to their list of Hollywood favorites. “She’s a good actress,” says Frances Makle. “It just looked like it came to her naturally. If she’s in anything else, I’ll go see it.”

Whether Wilson returns in another Perry film is unknown. She’s however, still carving out a place for her in a tremendously tough industry. “I’m part of a production company. Eventually, I want to produce my own movies,” says Wilson.
To find out more about Hope Wilson, log on to

Monday, September 7, 2009

Chicken Fried Success and Stability

Protecting heritage and preserving history, post-Katrina

During the lunch hour on any given day, it’s common to see Popeyes or KFC lobbies packed with customers looking to enjoy the secret herbs and spices that make the chain chicken restaurants super successful. Around lunch time, tucked away in a New Orleans neighborhood, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, you’ll find a line outside and all tables full at a famous fried chicken restaurant. “I’ve been coming here for just about 30 years,” says Allison Randolph, a New Orleans native.

Keeping customers like Randolph is not easy for any restaurant in New Orleans. In the Big Easy, residents are as serious about great food, as New Yorkers are about fashion trends. Randolph eats at Willie Mae’s Scotch House at least four times a month and brings his son along. “I like the chicken. It’s the best I ever tasted,” says Jordan Randolph.

Natives aren’t the only ones in love with the fried chicken at the Treme neighborhood restaurant on Saint Ann Street. Minutes before the doors open at the lunch-only restaurant, customers, mostly tourists, line up outside to get a seat. The small frame house comfortably seats 40 customers at most. San Antonio businessman Jim Ramsey considers himself a “chicken fanatic”. “I’m looking for the chicken to be crunchy, have the right amount of heat, spices and everything you’re used to having in chicken with a New Orleans flare,” says Ramsey. Ironically, he says his family opened a KFC in Oklahoma years ago but the secret recipe at Willie Mae’s beats out the Colonel.

So, what makes the fried chicken so award-winning and special? “I tell my staff to treat everybody like a food critic,” says Kerry Seaton, who operates the restaurant, in place of her 92-year-old great-grandmother and restaurant founder, Willie Mae Seaton. Her great-grandmother recently retired. Kerry Seaton, however, won’t tell you her family’s secret recipe.

In early 2005, Willie Mae’s was honored with several prestigious awards for serving up the most delicious chicken in the country. The restaurant even received the industry’s coveted and distinct James Beard award. The joy experienced was short-lived. Hurricane Katrina’s unforgiving winds and flood waters destroyed the business. Rebuilding meant literally starting from scratch, since everything was gone and the restaurant was uninsured. “It was like the rug was pulled from under us,” says Seaton. “You think you’re going away for the weekend and you come back months later and see all of your hard work just gone.”

When word got out that the neighborhood landmark took a devastating blow from Katrina, help arrived. Family members, friends, volunteers and a host of non-profit organizations, like the Southern Foodways Alliance, donated nearly two years of hard work and raised $200,000 needed to re-open Willie Mae’s doors.

Seaton says getting back in business brought immense joy to her great-grandmother’s heart. “She was so intent on getting back to this neighborhood and just thought it was beautiful to see everyone pitch in to help out. Without the volunteers, I don’t know how we would have been able to come back,” says Seaton.

These days, it’s almost like Katrina never happened. The chicken still comes out of the small kitchen, with the perfect amount of secret seasoning, fried to a golden-crisp and is as tender as you can imagine. While the recipe for that hasn’t changed, there is a twist to the menu. “We no longer use pork products in our beans and we have a few vegetarian entrees available for customers,” says Seaton.

Photos on the wall tell the story of Willie Mae’s Scotch House from its early beginnings in 1957, in a small room. “It was a bar at first, but she (Willie Mae Seaton) didn’t have a license to sell beer, so regulators came through one day and took all of her beer,” says Seaton, of her great-grandmother’s early start. “The next day, customers ran an ad in a local paper encouraging residents to come to the “Scotch House” and the name stuck.”

Certificates and awards that line the wall validate a proclamation Seaton gives rather emphatically about the food and the satisfaction customers can expect when they visit. “I’m seeking perfection and we’re trying our best to be the best. I want to be the best everyday with every plate,” says Seaton.

Seaton knows she’s stepping into a legacy and reputation carefully crafted by her great-grandmother’s work ethic and commitment. It’s a challenge she gracefully accepts. “If she did it for 50 years, then I want to do it for 50 more.”