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Dress for Success

Volunteers help job seekers build confidence.

The last time Ruby Small looked for a job was in the 1960s, and she wore jeans to the interview. She held that position, as a machine operator, until 1998, when she retired—or at least thought she had.

That was before the Shreveport, La., woman found herself divorced after a 40-year marriage. "I needed a job badly and knew I wouldn't get a second chance in an interview, so I had to make sure I looked right and said the right things," recalled Small, 62. But even if she aced the interview, she couldn't afford an interview outfit.

It turns out that she didn't need to buy one. That's because Small discovered Dress for Success, an international nonprofit organization that supplies professional attire and ongoing career and life advice to disadvantaged women entering or to women reentering the workforce.

The navy-blue suit, stockings, shoes, and earrings DFS gave Small were stunning. A volunteer acted as what the nonprofit calls a "personal shopper," selecting several suits donated to the organization, and helped Small choose the most flattering one. At the same time, she was coached for her sales-clerk interview.

"Before I went to Dress for Success, I was feeling down and out, that nobody cared about me," Small said. "They took me in and made me look professional and feel so much better about myself. It gave me the confidence to get the job." (She ended up turning it down for another.)

Small attends a monthly DFS Professional Women's Group meeting where clients network and listen to speakers discuss topics that will make them successful and self-sufficient, such as stress management, communication skills, child care, and workplace dynamics. And the group continues to add to Small's wardrobe.

Vernette Steele, 59, had landed a job when she arrived at DFS. She had read about the organization in her local newspaper and knew she needed business attire to sell theater-ticket packages to companies. Her first session took an hour and a half, she said. Because she already had a job, she was entitled to three outfits; among the items she came away with were a pants suit, a separate jacket, a skirt suit, a pocketbook, shoes, a sweater, a trench coat, bras, stockings, jewelry, and what Steele calls a "power red" skirt.

"The volunteer treated me like I was in some fancy place," recalled Steele, 59. "I tried on lots of clothes. She told me I looked perfect and I was going to go out there and get whatever it was I wanted!"

Like Small, Steele still attends the monthly workshops. "I've learned how to stop spending, consolidate payments, get out of debt, and open up a savings account," she said. She's become friends with two other group members, and they go out to dinner every other month. "It's empowering to meet other women looking to better themselves," Steele added.

In fact, she's so grateful to DFS that she's become a volunteer in addition to being a client.

Susan Goldbach used to donate her suits to the group when she was a sales and business development manager for United Parcel Service. Since retiring in 2006 after 33 years on the job, Goldbach is a personal shopper every Tuesday afternoon in the Denver office and also fundraises for the group.

"Every week I have some kind of impactful (sic) experience," said Goldbach, 58. "One reason I feel so passionate about the organization is that you see results right away from when the client walks in the door. She's scared and nervous and doesn't know what to expect. She may never have owned or put on a suit. By the time she gets her clothes and accessories, she's pretty much become a different person. She's confident, holds her head up higher, smiles, and opens up. As a volunteer, it's extremely rewarding. I feel I am truly making a difference."

Goldbach has outfitted inmates wearing ankle bracelets and victims of domestic abuse. One day, a recovered addict whom Goldbach had helped dress a few months earlier for an entry-level, hospital-job interview returned to the office. "She remembered I had helped her and gave me a big hug. She came to tell us she was on her second promotion and was now a supervisor making $45,000 a year," Goldbach remembered. "She was beaming."

In her managerial position at UPS, Goldbach would help luckier women move up the ladder. "Now I am able to do this with women who don't have resources and are in very unfortunate situations," she said.

Remember Ruby Small who interviewed for her first job in jeans? In her smart duds, she is now a volunteer, putting clothes on hangers, helping clients dress, and, in her "real" part-time job, working at her daughter's beauty shop. She gives informal career, clothing, and life advice she learned at DFS—and, of course, makes referrals to the organization.

"There are so many young people coming through the beauty shop. I tell them things I didn't know, like dress is very important today and boils over into everything you do," Small asserted.

Dress for Success, she said, taught her how to carry herself, talk to people, and make everyone, including herself, feel comfortable in a variety of situations. She said, "When they come to the beauty shop, they tell my daughter, we want to be just like your mother when we get older."

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