Dressed to Impress

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It’s probably fair to say that hunting for a job is a daunting process in the best of times; just thinking about a job hunt may bring up images of headlines screaming about unemployment rates. For women who come from a history of poverty, that undertaking can prove even more difficult.

That’s where Dress for Success comes in. Working with disadvantaged women from all walks of life to provide professional clothing, career development tools and support, the organization endeavors to help its clients leave the cycle of poverty.

“When our women come to us, they’ve been part of homelessness, domestic violence, some have been incarcerated, and some have substance abuse backgrounds,” said Judy Chambers, Dress for Success Austin’s executive director. “And of course, generational poverty. And we’re now seeing veterans more and more. Due to our variety of programs, we feel like we’re able to help some of these women see some of their potential.”

Founded in New York in 1997, Dress for Success started with the goal of helping clients find jobs and remain employed. The Austin affiliate opened its doors in 2003 when a group of professional women saw a need for the organization’s services and worked with the Houston affiliate to develop a business plan for Central Texas.

In the early days, the Austin affiliate served a few hundred women each year through its programs, Chambers said. Today it serves more than 1,500 annually.

While it’s well known for providing women with work-appropriate suits, Dress for Success has a number of programs that go beyond the suit and provide women with the resources they need in their working lives.

A woman will typically come in to get fitted for a suit when she has a job interview and then return, once she gets a job, for help with more work attire, said Mia Johns, the program coordinator. While clients are job searching, they can take advantage of the Going Places Network, a Walmart-sponsored program that arms women with professional skills like resume writing and networking. Once they get a job, they can participate in the Professional Women’s Group, for continued networking, and the Financial Literacy program, which teaches women such skills as budgeting.

Mentoring and Healthy Living programs are also available, and new this year is Skills for Success, an initiative designed to help working women from a disadvantaged background be more successful in the workplace.

While Dress for Success has seen an increase in its clients, it’s also taken hits from the economic downturn.

“In 2009, our clients increased by 40 percent, whereas our funding from grants and donations decreased by 40 percent,” Chambers said. “It was a Catch 22: We needed to serve more women while we struggled with resources, but we did it.”

The board strove to gain more financial support from the business community to keep Dress for Success Austin’s programs up and running for its increased clientele, and today the organization works with more than 80 referral agencies.

Other challenges come from the backgrounds of the clients themselves. Lack of health care has meant that clients sometimes don’t have access to the right physical or psychological medications, or they are exhausted from caring for children or an aging parent.

One client was employed, but between a legal battle with her abusive ex for their toddler and day care for the child, she didn’t have enough money for an apartment. She and the toddler lived in her Mini Cooper for a year, but after help from Dress for Success she now owns her own business and can afford housing again.

“The one thing the community needs to understand is that yes, we provide interview suits, but we also provide ongoing support,” Chambers said. “We don’t abandon them. They’re with us forever. A lot of agencies do what they’re meant to do, then their clients are on their own. Once you get started, you hear stories, feel their pain, and you just don’t want to stop. There’s so much that has to be done.”

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A native New Englander, Kate moved to Austin in 2002 to attend graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, where she got her master’s degree in journalism. She spent several years as a reporter with the Austin Business Journal, where she covered health care, development and real estate. Kate now runs Thumbtack Communications, where she provides ghostwriting, copywriting, social media strategy and PR in addition to writing bylined articles. She lives in Central Austin with her husband, son, and two cranky cats. When she’s not writing, she’s playing guitar, gardening or hiking.

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