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

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