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More than just clothes

Kathy Plumley just laughs when asked if the pinstripe jacket and pants hanging in her closet is her lucky suit. After all, it wasn’t luck that inspired the Chesapeake woman to go back to school after she had her children.

It wasn’t luck that pushed her to stay up late nights studying.

And it certainly wasn’t luck that got her her dream job, after enduring the endless, frustrating grind of putting in application after application with no nibble of a job.

But yet there still was something that came from that blue-gray garb that Plumley wore to an interview this summer when she finally landed the office job she wanted so badly.

That something was a sense of confidence, a sense of self and the knowledge she looked like a pro.

And that’s the name of the game for the organization that supplied Plumley with her special suit. It’s what Dress for Success is all about.

LOOKING THE PART

The non-profit nationwide organization whose slogan is “Suits to Self-Sufficiency,” was started by Nancy Lublin in 1997 in New York City with a $5,000 inheritance she got from a relative. Since then almost a half-million women internationally have benefited from the program that on average reaches 40,000 women each year in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and the Netherlands.

Right now close to 3,000 organizations have partnered with Dress to make referrals to the organization. Dress for Success takes clients by referral only.

Its goal is to get financially struggling women into the marketplace where they can then take care of themselves by providing them with one of the nuts and bolts of any successful career: The right clothes.

Each woman referred to Dress for Success receives everything necessary for a job interview from a suit to shoes to jewelry to panty hose, all appropriate for the field she wants to enter.

Once she gets the job, Dress for Success will then provide five more outfits for the woman to wear so she will continue to look like a professional in her field.

The clothing is all donated and the Huntington, W.Va. affiliate takes in garments every Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. at its headquarters at 1141 Fourth Ave.

“It’s gently used clothing,” Jessica Graham, executive director there, said. “Maybe it doesn’t fit them anymore or they have retired. We ask for it to be on a hanger and clean.”

Sometimes dress manufacturers who are national sponsors will also donate.

That was the case with Dress Barn in New York that recently sent 30 boxes of brand new suits to Huntington.

Plumley’s story is like those of so many other women in the area. Her path to getting an education was marred by stops and starts, until finally she accepted the reality that to get the career she wanted, education was the only ticket.

GOING BACK TO SCHOOL

“I didn’t have the job because I didn’t have the degree,” she said. “And I wanted to be a good example for my kids. I went back (to school) for myself and my dad was a big push for that.”

She turned to the Huntington Junior College to get the skills she needed and as she was getting ready to start job-hunting, the college offered students the chance to get practice by going through mock interviews.

“They let us know in the class that if we didn’t have a suit to wear to this mock interview, we could be referred to Dress for Success,” Plumley said. “You have to have the clothing and with me not having a job I couldn’t afford to buy one.”

So she showed up at the Huntington office of Dress for her appointment one day and walked out with an ensemble of outer garments and an inner sense of her own ability to succeed.

“It’s being able to dress, I guess, to the T, especially if you are looking for an office job, you don’t want to go in wearing blue jeans,” she said. “You feel more confident and encouraged.”

Ambra Lewis was 16 when she dropped out of Fairland High School. However, when she was in her 20s, she saw her mistake and went for her GED. It took three tries before she got it, but when she did, there was no stopping her.

“As soon as I got my GED I applied for junior college,” Lewis said. “Without education you can’t do anything. You can’t get a job unless you want to flip burgers all your life and that is not something I want to do.”

What she did want to do was find a job in the medical field and Lewis just graduated with her degree from Huntington Junior in medical coding.

“The medical field is something that will always be there,” she said. “It makes me feel great knowing I am one of the first people in my family to get a college degree and know that I am able to do something.”

A PRIVATE FITTING

Now comes the hard part: Finding a job. Like Plumley, Lewis was referred to Dress for Success as she starts the interview process.

“When I went over there, they gave me a complete wardrobe. They are great. They really care about you,” Lewis said. “They want you to walk into a job interview and look like a professional. I didn’t have the money to get the suit and everything.

“They are so compassionate and so down-to-earth. You have a private fitting. You don’t only get clothes. Beauticians donate haircuts. It is amazing what all they do.”

Yuanrong Jia-Reid is the instructor at Huntington Junior College who will refer students to the local Dress office.

Since the program started locally, she has seen a transformation in her students when they team up with the non-profit.

“By using the program, it is one less thing they have to worry about,” she said. “I think they project more confidence. They feel more confident. It doesn’t change who they are, but it helps in a lot of ways.”

EMPOWERMENT

This July the Collins Career Center at Getaway became a partner with the River Cities affiliate of Dress for Success, which means the center can now refer its students to the non-profit for assistance.

Nancy Black, who teaches medical terminology at Collins, is the liaison for the program there.

“I think when women look better they feel better and have better self-esteem. It empowers them to go out into the workforce,” Black said. “They don’t have to feel like their appearance is a barrier to their being able to put their best foot forward.”

The River Cities branch of Dress for Success started serving women in 2007 and has expanded its caseload each year. In 2008, 55 women were helped, but so far this year that number has jumped to 135 with the agency gearing up to offer women more than clothes.

“Increasingly we are going beyond the suit, making an emotional connection with each woman and sustaining that connection,” Graham said. “It’s following up and if the interview didn’t work out asking do you want some more help on the resume. Low-income women are three times as likely to succeed in the workplace if they have a support system.”

However, as good as the program may sound, sometimes taking advantage of that kind of support system is rejected. It sounds too much like taking a hand-out, a distasteful prospect for many. Those feelings Lewis understands full well.

“I am not somebody who feels like asking for help. I was kind of iffy about going, but I had to,” she said. “But the people over there, they don’t make you feel like you are needy. They make you feel like you are part of their family. They are just great.”