Many single low-income women who try to enter the work force find themselves competing for jobs that require business clothes they can't afford. That's where Suited for Change comes in.
"We offer women professional attire and professional consultation to assist them in entering or re-entering the workforce," says Michelle Yorkman, a Program Director at Suited for Change. The D.C. non-profit is all about empowering women, whatever their background: unemployed or on welfare, recovering drug addicts, victims of domestic abuse, recent immigrants. Over the past 15 years, the organization has helped more than 12,000 women as they looked for work.
"We have a seminar series that happens two or three times a year where we do image consultation," she says. "We show you how to dress and behave professionally. We offer business etiquette training, financial management skills. The kind of human resources, paperwork management, how to learn about your benefits, everything that they can possibly need to get in the door and once they are there to be successful."
After completing a job training or skills-development program, Suited for Change women are ready to be dressed for success, thanks to donations from individuals, companies and manufacturers.
"We have suits. We have separates. We have dresses," she says. "During winter months, we have coats. So the first visit they receive two outfits and then once they've secured full-time employment, they can come back and receive three more, so that they have a week's worth of outfits. With these outfits they get shoes, a handbag, accessories as well as one on one consultation with one of our volunteers to assist them in mixing and matching the outfits to maximize the clothing that they receive."
Lucy, 43, has been employed as a temporary work and now hopes to find a permanent position. She says this is her first visit to Suited for Change. "I picked those three outfits but I'm only taking home two," she says. "It makes me feel good about myself. I'm excited."
Volunteer Elaine Polkey serves as a wardrobe consultant to the visiting women. "I'd say the majority of people that come here have never had the opportunity to experiment with their clothing or to have a choice," she says. "But you can get them to experiment, try on. That's I think the key. Some people just know how to dress. They look fantastic. Other people are really a little bit shy about trying new things. And when you can get them to do it, they can see how good they look. That's when the confidence grows."
Building self confidence is the ultimate goal, according to Suited for Change's Michelle Yorkman. "When you look good and you feel you are projecting a professional image. You are going to perform in a professional manner," she says. "You're going to feel as though you are qualified. You're going to feel that your answers are alright because you feel good about yourself and you are not self conscious about how you are being perceived or whether or not your clothes are appropriate for that job."
A visit to the organization's vast fashion warehouse, she says, can be a transforming experience for the client and her whole family. "There have been clients that have put on a suit, come out, looked in the mirror and began to cry," she says. "There have been clients who had their children waiting for them in the lobby. When they come out to show their new suit, the family is so overjoyed because they understand that this woman is making the step to become a working woman, which comes with a certain prestige. They know that this is a new start not only for them, but this is an example for their daughters."
Yorkman says it is not unusual for women who once came seeking help to come back a few years later, offering help. "We have a board member who was formerly a client," she says. "Probably seven or eight years ago, she came to Suited for Change looking to regain entry to the workforce. She was suited. She attended our workshops and learned skills she needed to be successful again. She has been constantly promoted with Xerox over the years. She is now in a management position."
Like so many of its clients, Suited for Change has blossomed. Each year, it has attracted more volunteers, and served more women than before. It has become part of the Women's Alliance, a nationwide network of more than 30 similar non-profits that share experiences and resources. Recently, the Alliance launched its own clothing line to provide more variety and sizes of the professional attire women need for a successful new start in life.