Sunday, October 07, 2001

Dress for Success and more

Program provides clothes, but self-esteem and learning to succeed are the real goals

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's not that Mary Ivers is begging or anything, but can she have your clothes? Please? Seems she needs to dress 100 women a month and, well, it's not cheap.

        Ms. Ivers, see, runs Dress for Success, a non-profit organization that collects gently used women's business clothes, then provides them free of charge to low-income women who need an outfit to wear to job interviews.

[photo] Mary Ivers (center) and Lanita Boyd help Nancy Doyle decide what to wear to her job interview.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
        She figures she has dressed more than 1,500 women in Dress' 16-month local life. The national program — it began in New York in '96 and is now in almost 30 cities — has dressed closer to 15,000. All for free.

        “We dress them head to toe — shoes, pantyhose, suit, blouse, even accessories,” Ms. Ivers says, leaning on the freshly painted deep pink and light lavender walls of her Fourth Street shop. Or closet, as she calls it.

        “Don't the walls look great? The guys at River City (Correctional) painted them. We dress a lot of the women when they are ready to re-enter the job market.”

        Right now the 52-year-old Mount Lookout mother of four, Mount St. Joseph grad, former teacher, former business woman turned volunteer director isn't dressing anyone. She's taking care of business: Paperwork, organizing a coat drive, fretting about funding.

        “There's never enough to go around. We get help from foundations and a variety of other sources, but there's always a need for more.”

        Women dressed by Dress are referred by one of 120 social service agencies, rehab facilities, courts, jails and churches. They make an appointment, then fax in a form with vital statistics, including size ranges.

        “That way, when she comes in we're sure to have things in her sizes, even if I have to go to Payless and buy extra wide shoes,” Ms. Ivers says. “I'd hate for someone to come in and us not be able to help.”

        When the client arrives, she has a personal shopper — one of the many Dress volunteers — waiting for her. The shopper takes her through the shop that's arranged like an upscale boutique, thanks to volunteers from Cincinnati's Fashion Group. Volunteers offer advice and help select appropriate outfits.

        If the client gets the job, she comes in and gets a second outfit. If she doesn't, she wears the same one to the next interview.

        “But dressing is only phase one,” Ms. Ivers says. “The real work begins with our Professional Women's Group.”

        PWG is a job-retention and career enhancement program with volunteer-led workshops and seminars — money management, stress management, child care options, career management, taxes — plus networking events and one-on-one coaching. There are about 300 women enrolled and a long list waiting to enroll. (Women who attend a certain number of sessions get incentive points, good for another shopping visit.)

        “PWG is the real reason I brought the program to Cincinnati. I researched it thoroughly to make sure there was a need, then I went to New York to make my presentation to Nancy (Lublin, founder). She agreed and we became the 22nd closet in the U.S.

        Little did Ms. Ivers know when she assumed the volunteer position that she was taking on a full-time job. “We're open for clients Tuesdays and Thursdays, but I'm here five days — seven, corrects Toni Miles, her assistant — because there's that great a need and that much work. Look at this stack of clients coming in,” she says, waving an inch-high stack of pink appointment forms. “We have to be here for them.”

        But before they arrive, a few questions ...

        My No. 1 piece of advice to clients going for a job interview ...

        Hold your head up high, be proud of who you are. Remember self-love. Self-confidence shows and it counts.

        Job applicants should never ...

        One big word: Always tell the truth. I don't like to use the word lie, but that's it. Never lie.

        The question I get most often from clients ...

        When can I get another outfit? Beyond that, it varies, but the most frequent are where can I get additional help? Who's hiring? Is transportation provided? What about child care?

        If time and money were unlimited, I'd ...

        Set up satellite shops throughout the entire region. The service is needed everywhere but our clients are limited by transportation. If they can't get here, we can't help them. We provide some transportation, but we can't get everyone here.

        The thing we do best ...

        Is treat every woman with respect and dignity and build her self-esteem. We do that by recognizing the total woman.

        The area where we could improve ...

        Continuing support. The new outfit is an introduction to what we do here, but the programs of support after they get the job are more important. It all comes back to funding and staff though, so it puts us in a continuous cycle of fund-raising.

        Clothes don't make the woman, but they do ...

        In many ways, they do make the woman. In job hunting, it's first impression all the way, and the external clothes instill internal confidence. When they walk into that interview, they know they're appropriately dressed and that's a big boost.

        If clients learn nothing else from us, I hope they ...

        Learn to love themselves. We work hard to instill that self-worth, to make sure they know they're women of value.

        Our biggest challenge has been ...

        Rapid growth and the lack of funding to handle it. The program has far exceeded any goal I set. I guess I had no idea how needed all this was.

        One thing I wish you had asked me ...

        Probably why did I bring this program to town. I've worked in the community and I feel there are strong women leaders, and I thought that strength could come together around a program like this.

       Dress for Success' is at 135 W. Fourth St. Its winter coat drive runs through October; the clothes drive runs year 'round. Call 651-3372.


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