For low-income single moms with mouths to feed, buying quality work clothes is the last thing on the budget. At least that’s how Terry Howell sees it. When Howell’s abusive relationship reached a fever pitch, she took her eight-month-old daughter and fled without money, a job, or a place to go. The Lodge — a Miami-Dade shelter for victims of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault — took her in.
Then she had to find a career. “A good suit for an interview is expensive. When you’re living on unemployment, you’re not able to go to Macy’s and buy something nice,” she said.
Enter organizations like the Miami affiliate of Dress for Success, a global nonprofit that provides designer clothing and job-training opportunities to low-income workers. This weekend, the nonprofit’s 20th annual “Success Summit” at downtown Miami’s Kimpton Epic Hotel will bring together affiliates from around the world.
Most of the clients at United Way Miami-Dade are low-income women, and most of them are single moms. The number of unemployed women in Florida more than doubled between 2006 and 2012. And though prices of women’s business attire have been trending down for the past nine years, that doesn’t mean that a woman without a job is able to afford a $100 outfit that was once $200, said Marshal Cohen, apparel market analyst for the NPD Group.
To help bridge that gap, Dress for Success has given work attire to 35,000 Miami-Dade women, including Howell, in the past 19 years.
Dress for Success is only one of several South Florida nonprofits helping women. Women take advantage of the free financial planning classes and after-school programs for kids offered by United Way. Since 1960, Camillus House has served more than 350,000 free meals and provided emergency housing to 2,000 people. Junior League of Miami operates two residential programs for women transitioning out of abusive situations. Lotus House offers homeless women a place to live for up to a year, three meals a day, clothing, counseling and educational services.
In 2009, Lotus House opened the Lotus House Thrift in Wynwood. Irma Williams, store manager and former alumna of the Lotus shelter, has worked at the shop for three years. “When I was a guest at the shelter, women would come in with no clothing at all,” Williams said. “So we opened up this thrift store to provide them with clothes and some furniture for when they got their own place.”
All proceeds from the thrift store feed back into Lotus House. Women who complete its job-training program are eligible to receive a free interview outfit, said Pat Hudson, Lotus House employment director. Then they can work at the store to gain retail experience.
The store offers name brands like Banana Republic at prices that range from $10 to $20. Clearance items can be found for less than $6.
At no cost at all, Terry Howell walked away from Dress for Success with a mint-colored Ralph Lauren pantsuit made of silky fabric, a gray pinstripe Tahari suit, black loafers, and beige Nine West pumps. Less than a month later, she had a long-term career as an advocate for a disability company. “My confidence level was through the roof when I walked into that interview,” she said. “I would not have landed that job that easily if I had gone in with nothing.”
Indeed, 72 percent of Americans believe that a polished appearance can brighten the prospects of women getting hired and earning promotions, according to a 2010 Newsweek poll. Clothing of candidates in job interviews remains a top employer complaint in Miami, said Sonia Jacobson, co-founder of the Miami affiliate of Dress for Success and former consultant for an image-development firm.
“Fifty percent of the initial interview is formed within seconds of walking in the room,” she said. To be sure its beneficiaries are truly well clad, Dress for Success declines 75 percent of the donations it is offered because they don’t meet its quality standards. But donations from name brands like Ann Taylor help ensure that Dress for Success job applicants look ready to work.
Every room in the nonprofit’s small white house in Overtown is neatly packed with racks of clothing — many with designer labels. Jacobson pulled a BCBG dress from one rack; a bright red Tahari suit and a cream Liz Claiborne sweater hung from another. In an adjacent room, a shoe rack held Stuart Weitzman and Kenneth Cole heels.
In 1995, when the Miami program was just starting out as Suited for Success, it was a silk beige suit, matching purse, and pumps for LaQuita Sartin, Jacobson’s first client.
But that’s not all. The flecks of hazel in Sartin’s caramel-colored eyes practically conceal the fact that the left eye is made of glass. She lost her real eye in a confrontation. After bouncing between minimum-wage jobs to support her three children, the welfare office put Sartin in Jacobson’s path.
“When she left, I turned around and told Barbara, the other founder, ‘We have to get her an eye,’ ” Jacobson said. The Bascom Palmer Eye Institute agreed to do the surgery pro bono, but Jacobson still had to round up $2,500 for the prosthetic eye. So, she held a fundraiser with the help of the Professional Women’s Group in Fort Lauderdale. Then Jacobson presented an oversized check to Sartin.
“I was so overwhelmed with happiness that I began to cry,” Sartin said. “I had been a victim, but then I was blessed.” Sartin, now 40, works in the billing department at Comcast. Just three more semesters at Miami Dade College stand between her and a psychology degree. Eventually, she wants to open her own home for disadvantaged boys in New Orleans.
The clothes that came from Dress for Success still hang in Howell’s closet, she said. She keeps them as reminders of where she came from. Today, she mines the clearance racks at Macy’s and Neiman Marcus for her businesswear. “I have no shame in recycling outfits,” she said.