- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2006

Suited for Change in Northwest is giving D.C.-area women a second chance at succeeding in life.

Since opening its doors in 1992, the nonprofit group has outfitted more than 12,000 unemployed and low-income job-seeking women with new business suits, and self-esteem to match.

The women are referred to Suited for Change through one of 135 area job-readiness training programs. They are paired with personal shoppers who help them choose five free business suits for their new lives — two for interviews and three once they land a job.

About 150 women are outfitted each month, said Mary-Frances Wain, the group’s executive director.

“We ask women to put down their identities, literally take off their clothes and put on new ones and become the people that they dreamed, and sometimes never dreamed, they could be,” she said.

Located in the basement of 1712 I St. NW, Suited for Change is an offshoot of the Chicago-based Bottomless Closet, which began nearly 20 years ago. The idea has spread to nearly every major city in the United States and has led to the formation of the Women’s Alliance, a national network of sister organizations.

In the corner of Suited for Change’s small lobby, a snazzy green three-piece suit, complete with heels and a broach, hangs on a mannequin. Behind a curtain is a boutique filled with donated clothes, shoes, pantyhose, handbags, jewelry, briefcases, coats and other accessories.

Photographs of graduates, smiling and dressed to the nines, hang on the walls, a showcase of what organizers say is a diverse clientele of mostly single black mothers, seniors and a growing number of Hispanics from the D.C. area.

The women come from all walks of life. They might be unemployed or on welfare, recovering drug addicts, victims of domestic abuse, formerly incarcerated, or recent immigrants.

As more single low-income women enter the work force to support their children, they must compete for well-paying corporate jobs that require business attire they can’t afford, Miss Wain said.

For women, a business suit is a “critical component” to landing that first job and staying there, she said.

“Research [shows that] a woman’s appearance is a critical factor in determining whether she is hired, promoted or asked to represent her company at industry events,” Miss Wain said. “For low-income women who don’t have the resources to create a professional appearance, they’re out of the job market before they even get the opportunity to present … their qualifications.”

Suited for Change also offers personal and professional development seminars on topics such as resume writing and financial management as well as health and nutrition.

Lakia Queen, a medical assistance student at Sanz School, said finding a suit was a “confidence booster.”

“I don’t own any dress clothes, so it helps a lot,” said the 20-year-old Southeast woman, as she and her personal shopper looked for earrings to match the cream-colored suit she plans to wear to two job interviews next week.

Former client Leary Short, 55, said Suited for Change was her last stop on a long journey that included rape, domestic abuse, drug addiction and imprisonment.

Now a member of the Suited for Change board of directors and a boutique volunteer, Mrs. Short credits the seminars for helping her find a voice she never knew she had.

“Suited not only wanted me to look well, but to speak well,” said Mrs. Short, who got a job at Xerox Corp. eight years ago after getting help from Suited for Change.

“They polished you. Whatever skills you had, they made them shine a little brighter. Suited gave me the confidence to change myself,” she said.

Through continued support, she moved up in Xerox, from making copies to managing a crew of technicians.

Mrs. Short said she now donates her business clothes to charities. “My advice to other women in the program is to finish the race, stay the course, don’t give up, believe in yourself,” she said.

SUITED FOR CHANGE

Founded: 1992

Contact: Mary-Frances Wain, executive director

1712 I St. NW, Suite B100

Washington, D.C. 20006

202/293-0351

Web site: www.suitedforchange.org

Employees: Three paid and more than 150 volunteers

Background: Suited for Change is an offshoot of the Chicago-based Bottomless Closet, which began nearly 20 years ago. The idea has spread to nearly every major city in the U.S., prompting the formation of the Women’s Alliance, a national network of sister organizations. Some cater to men.

Source: Suited for Change

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