Helping People

Dressing for proms and professional success

Student volunteers with a customer looking for a prom dress
Student volunteers with a customer looking for a prom dress Pam Kirtman

In 2001, Rebecca Kirtman was a freshman at Nova High School in Davie and decided to start a dress collection.

Not for herself, but to donate free prom dresses to girls who couldn’t afford one.

After placing signs around school and writing letters to dress manufacturers, Rebecca had collected more than 250 dresses that she gave away to girls in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Two years later, 16-year-old Rebecca was killed in a car accident. Keeping their daughter’s legacy alive, Pam and Jay Kirtman founded Becca’s Closet in 2003.

“People from around the country started wanting to help — her friends, our friends and a lot of people in the community,” Jay Kirtman said. “It was an outpouring of generosity involved and it just grew.”

Twelve years later, the Plantation-based nonprofit organization has locations in 27 states and an inventory of more than 100,000 dresses.

“At a point where I wasn’t really functioning, people were saying, ‘We’re gonna make this happen,’” Pam Kirtman said. “It became our purpose, and it was very much needed in a lot of ways.”

The organization also awards scholarships and its newest project, Prom Angels, buys prom tickets for students who can’t afford them.

Becca’s Closet has two stores in Miami-Dade and Broward counties: At G. Holmes Braddock Senior High in West Miami-Dade and at the Festival Flea Market Mall in Pompano Beach. It gets its dresses from donations — from local people and from dress manufacturers.

The stores also carry shoes and handbags and provide nail technicians and hair stylists. They stock dresses from sizes double zero and above, although the biggest challenge is finding petite and plus sizes.

There have been few times when a girl walks away without a dress, but that’s rare.

“If one girl leaves without a dress, I feel like such a failure,” Pam Kirtman said. “My husband and I have taken the girls shopping because we can. Donors will donate money and say, ‘Use this money to buy a dress for a girl.’”

Another organization that focuses on helping women — and men — is Suited for Success/Dress for Success.

After learning about The Bottomless Closet on CNN, Sonia Jacobson decided to start a nonprofit of her own, Suited for Success.

The concept: Help women get jobs by giving them the clothes they need for a job interview.

“It’s the first impression that one makes,” Jacobson said. “If it’s not a positive impression, then they’re not likely to get the job.’’

Jacobson founded Suited for Success in 1994. By 2006, Suited for Success became the Miami affiliate of Dress for Success Worldwide.

Dress for Success is an international nonprofit that began as a boutique in a church in Manhattan. Founded by Nancy Lublin in 1997, the organization’s mission is to help women achieve financial independence by providing them with professional attire and the tools to launch a career.

Today, Dress for Success has helped more than 850,000 women and has locations in 20 countries.

Suited for Success focuses on dressing men and young adults, while Dress for Success works with women.

From its Overtown offices — which doubles as a showroom — Suited for Success helps about 15 people daily. A social service agency refer clients to the nonprofit. The store is divided between men’s and women’s clothes and accessories.

Thanks to donations from various manufacturers, retailers and the community, the racks and shelves are packed with garments: blazers, sweaters, dresses, skirts, slacks, jewelry, shoes, ties and belts, along with purses and handbags. The labels are a fashion diva’s dream: Ralph Lauren, Elie Tahari, Louis Vuitton and other top brands — all donated.

Every client walks out with a business suit, shoes, an accessory and a promise that after they find a job, they can come back for two additional outfits to wear to work.

“Everyone leaves with a complete outfit,” Jacobson said.

The organization also offers training programs on proper dress code, putting together a résumé, preparing for interview questions and body language skills.

Terry Howell has benefited from the program. After terminating a relationship that she described as “unhealthy,” Howell was alone in Miami, with her 1-year-old daughter and a need for a job.

Howell was referred to Dress for Success in 2008, where she worked with a volunteer.

“She suited me, and I felt almost the first ray of hope that I had felt in the past months,” Howell said. “It was a wonderful suit.’’

Shortly thereafter, Howell got a job at a law firm in Coral Gables and began volunteering at Dress for Success.

By 2010, Howell, who is now an entrepreneur in the legal field, became the coordinator for the Dress for Success Professional Women’s Group Program, which assists women who have already found jobs. Once someone is employed, they can go to monthly meetings to discuss workplace issues, finances, budgeting, parenting, nutrition and health and wellness.

“They still need help learning how to readjust in life, and often they’ve been in a domestic violence situation or they’ve been homeless or lost everything,” Howell said. “The level of joy that I receive from giving — I would have never known that you were capable of getting such a reward from giving back to others.”

Getting involved

What: Becca’s Closet.

Stores: At G. Holmes Braddock High School, 3601 SW 147th Ave., Miami; and Festival Flea Market Mall, 2900 W. Sample Rd., Pompano Beach.

Info: www.beccascloset.org; 954-424-9999.

What: Dress for Success/Suited for Success.

Where: Culmer Community Action Center, 1600 NW Third Ave.

Info: www.miami.dressforsuccess.org; 305-444-1944.

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