Dress for Success: Helping women find a fresh start

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August 2, 2010
By: Brent Renneke
Brent Renneke
While a stay-at-home mom for her three children, a Minneapolis woman suffered a crisis that left her and her family in a position they never thought possible — alone and broke.

“I went from what I thought was financially secure to absolutely nothing,” said “Gloria,” who didn’t feel comfortable using her real name.

She hadn’t had a job in a decade and knew she would have one giant obstacle beyond landing a job interview.

“There was no money to buy nice clothes for an interview, not even at a thrift store,” she said. “There wasn’t even enough money to put gas in my minivan.”

Gloria said her worries were relieved when her job counselor informed her of an organization called Dress for Success.

The nonprofit organization’s mission is to help women living in poverty find work by supplying business clothes and teaching them skills meant to help acquire and maintain a job.

Often transitioning from prison or a homeless shelter, women are referred to Dress for Success by social service or various government agencies when they have an upcoming interview for a job.  

The client then comes to the offices of Dress for Success where volunteers help select an outfit for her upcoming interview. Following the fitting, a sit-down session takes place at which volunteers help the client prepare for her interview and perhaps the new and unfamiliar world of being employed, said Jeri Quest, executive director of Dress for Success Twin Cities.

A company with 113 affiliates worldwide, Dress for Success opened in the Twin Cities in November.

At its North Loop location, the organization offers a boutique overflowing with suit jackets, blouses, skirts and other apparel necessary for supplying its clients with an outfit fit for the corporate world.

Quest said the clothes and accessories given to clients come from donations, which can be given at any Edina Realty location, and are all modern and high quality. “These are not your grandma’s clothes that have been in a basement for years,” Quest said.

The outfit is only part of Dress for Success’s mission, said Quest, who said the organization also teaches job skills to help clients keep positions. “If we can help you keep the job, then you can really sustain the change in your life,” Quest said.

By supplying a new outfit and skills to flourish in the working world, Quest said Dress for Success provides hope many clients are desperately missing.

“One thing we know about this population is that they have been beaten down,” Quest said. “They have lost their confidence and the sense that they have the ability to get out of whatever spot they are in.”

Before attending her first appointment at Dress for Success, Gloria said she was apprehensive because the idea of receiving free clothes embarrassed her, and fears of being treated like a disadvantaged person were at the forefront of her thoughts.

But the people at Dress for Success were not concerned about the circumstances that brought Gloria to them; they were only concerned about where she was about to go, Gloria said.

“They did not treat me like a poor person coming for a handout,” she said. “They treated me like someone who was on the verge of a big opportunity, my big fresh start.”

The fresh start for Gloria came when she was hired for an office management position at a non-profit organization — a position she has held since early May with no intentions of leaving anytime soon.

Quest said she is grateful for the generosity of the Twin Cities community in the donations that make stories like this possible, but Dress for Success also requires people to donate their time because it is a volunteer-driven organization.

Currently there are 150 volunteers at Dress for Success with about 75 to 80 people actively contributing weekly by stocking clothes and working with the clients, Quest said.

For people interested in working with clients, Quest said volunteering is time-intensive due to the almost three hours they devote to each person that comes to the boutique.

Stephanie Silvers, program coordinator at Dress for Success, said the hours spent with clients is an experience that is easy to fall in love with.  

“You look at the smile, and you know that you are helping these people start to feel really good,” Silvers said.

“When you get something that you feel good in, it has the ability to straighten your back and give you a lighter step,” Quest said.

This lighter step has contributed to employment for about 50 women at Dress for Success out of the about 120 they have worked with, Quest said.

Being one of those 50 success stories, Gloria could not be happier.

“I just cannot help but smile when people ask me how my job is going,” Gloria said. “To be able to say that I have a job is awesome.”