Fit for a Queen

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February 2, 2004 // UPDATED 2:48 pm - April 24, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

'Dress for Success,' matching low-income women with clothes that can help them get a job, moves Downtown

Karen Austin smiled modestly as she checked herself out in the mirror.

The black pantsuit and hot pink blouse fit perfectly, but she needed some flair. So her clothing consultant grabbed a silver beaded scarf and placed it around her neck -- just the finishing touch she needed.

Austin, who works at a coffee shop in the Hennepin County Government Center, 300 S. 6th St., was one of the first women to receive a wardrobe consultation from Ready for Success at the nonprofit's new Loring Park location. The Episcopal charity will hold a grand opening celebration Wednesday, Feb. 4, in a newly renovated Loring Park mansion at 425 Oak Grove St.

Formerly located in Excelsior, Ready for Success provides new threads for women struggling to make ends meet. Clients are referred from more than 50 different Twin Cities social services agencies. Some are ex-prisoners, refugees or women moving from welfare to the workplace, while others are referred from shelters for battered women and the homeless.

The women are paired with volunteer shoppers who help them find outfits from a donated collection of slightly used professional business attire. Women receive two to four outfits, accessories, shoes and a coat during their first visit. After securing a job, clients can come back for two more visits.

The consultation had a cathartic effect on Austin.

"They gave me some really good clothes for interviews, going to the church choir," she said. "It builds up the self-esteem, plus it makes life easier, especially for a single mom. It's stuff that makes you feel pretty, you know. I don't want to be greedy. I just want to keep a thankful heart that people like this are out there to help."

Austin started a new life for herself two years ago when she left an abusive husband in Kansas City, Mo. She drove to Minneapolis with her now-8-year-old daughter with a couple of personal belongings.

They spent a few days with Austin's brother, then turned to the Downtown homeless shelter, People Serving People, Inc., 400 S. 10th St. Austin and her daughter stayed at the shelter for a week before finding an apartment in St. Paul at Sarah Family Ministries, which provides housing for women and leadership training for those called to Christian ministry.

Before coming to Minneapolis, Austin found her circumstances in Kansas City bleak. "I was starving down there practically. I didn't have anything hardly," she said.

Now she is intent on moving forward in her life.

"I'd like to have another family -- get remarried and have a better family, hopefully," she said.

Ready for Success, which started as an outreach project at Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior in 1997, has helped match more than 2,000 low-income women with professional business wear in preparation for upcoming job interviews. It became an Episcopal Community Services (ECS) program in 2001.

Staff and volunteers had been looking for a bigger space and a way to save on expenses. When the Cathedral Church of St. Mark, 425 Oak Grove St., offered space in an old mansion its owns next door for free, the nonprofit eagerly accepted.

Helen Lockhart, ECS board president, said she was pleased to "see new life and purpose for a historic Minneapolis home.

"This type of collaboration is an excellent example of how nonprofits and faith communities creatively work together to ensure that we continue to meet the needs of families, women and children in the current economy," she said.

To some, providing outfits might seem trivial, but volunteers insist the consultations can be dramatic. They say they fill a gap in the welfare-to-work transition neglected by other social services agencies, and help women face potential employers with confidence.

Said Program Manager Sue Veazie, "They often come in looking at the floor and become a changed person by the time they leave."

The Ready for Success clothing boutique is on the second floor of a renovated mansion. There are racks of designer pantsuits, dresses and skirts, as well as a collection of shoes, jewelry, scarves and makeup.

The Feb. 4 grand opening celebration will take place from 1-3 p.m. and 5-7 p.m.

How you can help

Ready for Success is looking for additional volunteers to help clients shop and make sure the clothes are in good condition. Volunteers are needed to sort, hang, clean and make minor repairs to donated clothes.

The commitment is a minimum of three hours a month. There are afternoon and evening shifts Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. On Saturday, shifts start at 9 a.m., 10:45 a.m. or 12:45 p.m.

If you are interested in volunteering, contact Volunteer Coordinator Leah Trumper,

871-4086.

As for clothing donations, Ready for Success seeks seasonal professional wear in good condition. Sizes 14 and up are especially needed. Solid colors are more popular with clients.

Items in demand are professional suits, blazers, pants, skirts, new undergarments, jewelry, purses, watches, scarves, belts and unopened personal care products. Jeans, T-shirts and sweatpants and sweatshirts are not accepted.

For more information, call 871-4086.