Putting women on road to work

Group provides clothing to help in landing jobs


... In a small basement space off Redwood Street in downtown Baltimore, a young woman named Wendie Wheatley finds one of the city's hidden treasures -- two outfits of clothing she can wear to a new job in a new life. A local nonprofit organization, Suited to Succeed, made it possible.

The group aims to help women make the transition from welfare to the work force by providing them with business attire that they can wear to their new jobs.

The site is like a small store. Racks of clothing fill two small rooms where women mill about, searching for attire that suits them. Wheatley stands at a table, sorting and hanging recently donated clothing. She has already selected her two outfits and must volunteer for an hour as payment.

Wheatley was recently released from prison with nothing, not even a place to live. She went to Marian House, a transitional program that provides homeless, abused and addicted women with temporary housing. Part of Wheatley's job-readiness training at Marian House included a trip to select interview-appropriate attire.

"When we come in, we don't feel that special," she says. "But when we leave, we feel like we are really special." Wheatley says she hopes to become a hospice worker and help children, and having business attire gets her one step closer to achieving that goal.

When Wheatley has finished her training at Marian House and secures a job, she will return to Suited to Succeed to select one more outfit. "The women here are wonderful," she says.

The program began in 1997, when the Clinton administration pushed welfare reform and new welfare-to-work policies prompted efforts to help women prepare for and find jobs.

In its early stages, the program served an average of eight clients a month. That number has grown to about 200 a month. About 4,000 women have been helped since its founding.

"When you consider that most nonprofits fold in the first couple of years," says organization board member Cathy Coble, "what they have accomplished is even more impressive."

A former board member, Wendy Slaughter, says the program does more than provide women with clothing. It offers support. The women it helps are often addicts, ex-offenders, victims of abuse, homeless, or simply unemployed. Many are single mothers.

The only women accepted into the program are those sent from other nonprofit groups and agencies.

Barbara Stokes, a program assistant, says walk-ins are directed to referral partners before selecting clothes because the women "need to reorganize their lives. They need help from the programs before they come here."

Funded through donations, the group is holding its annual live and silent auction -- called Suit-A-Palooza -- today. Last year's event raised enough money to cover half of the program's operating budget for the year.

During the year, money for day-to-day operations is raised by selling donated nonbusiness attire, such as jeans and T-shirts.

Board members also solicit corporate donations and encourage women to donate clothing that no longer fits. "For people who are more fortunate, it's a way of giving back," says board member Lorraine Jacobs.

Suited to Succeed's live and silent auction, Suit-A-Palooza, will be held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. today at the Lyric Opera House. Tickets can be purchased online at www.suitedtosucceed.org.

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