Dress for Success, helping women reenter workforce, needs a new space to hang its hat

(Sarah L. Voisin/ The Washington Post ) - Sharon Davis, 51, of Upper Marlboro shops in the Dress for Success program's clothing store for work attire.

(Sarah L. Voisin/ The Washington Post ) - Sharon Davis, 51, of Upper Marlboro shops in the Dress for Success program's clothing store for work attire.

Sharon Davis’s face lit up with excitement when she tried on the salmon tweed Ann Taylor suit. Then she slipped on a black cocktail dress, looked in the full-length mirror and let out a huge laugh.

“Ah, shucks, Halle Berry better watch out!” Davis exclaimed.

(Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post) - Kathleen Yates, office manager for Dress for Success, selects earrings for a client.

Davis, 51, of Upper Marlboro, is getting ready to return to work after being without a full-time job for more than two years.

She was fitted one recent afternoon in the makeshift boutique of the D.C. chapter of Dress for Success, a program that helps women polish their job and interview skills and write résumés and that outfits them in suits, shoes, jewelry, blouses and even makeup.

The nonprofit program, with a $250,000 annual budget, relies solely on donations in clothes and funds. It has helped 12,000 women from the Washington area in the past decade, but now the group faces its own challenge.

At this month’s end, Washington’s Dress for Success will be without a permanent location. The lease on its 1,850-square-foot office on Q Street NE is up, and the landlord has rented the space to a tenant who can pay more.

Until it finds a new home, Dress for Success has stopped accepting clothing donations, and workers are boxing up clothes, shoes and purses for storage. The organization will continue to offer classes on skills such as résumé writing and job hunting, as the new tenant has agreed to allow the organization to use one of its conference rooms.

Kim Whatley, the program’s board president, has been scrambling to find a new space. Many buildings she has considered are used by government contractors and have been closed because of the government shutdown.

“It’s like ‘Groundhog Day’ — we’ve been close four times in getting space, but there has been some wrinkle that resulted in not finalizing the deal,” Whatley said. She joined the D.C. Dress for Success board a year ago, and she works during the day as executive director of the Judicial Nomination Commission, a group of local judges, lawyers and residents that selects judicial nominees for the D.C. Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals.

Whatley said D.C. Dress for Success — the local chapter of the organization, which operates in more than a dozen countries — has a lot of community support. Last month, it received more than 1,400 clothing items through the Women’s Congressional Staff Association’s annual donation competition among women in the House and Senate.

“With Capitol Hill, D.C. has a significant population of highly educated and financially secure people to help support those women who are less fortunate and who have had obstacles in their lives that have resulted in an economic crisis,” Whatley said.

D.C. Dress for Success works with women who have been out of work for a long period of time, either because of layoffs, illness, incarceration or drug use. Other clients are seeking to reenter the workforce after staying home to raise children. Clients are referred from some 160 local agencies, including America Works, the Prince George’s County Department of Social Services, Goodwill and the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project.

The idea is that women who are confident in how they look perform better in the workplace.

Davis, who had worked for 12 years in billing at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, lost her job in 2011.

After being out of work for more than a year, she said, she lost her apartment, and her car was repossessed. She moved in with friends, but depression set in, and she spent most of her time in bed. The longer she was out of work, the more difficult it became to job hunt. She said she was withdrawn in her interviews.

“I had been rejected so many times; no one wanted someone my age, so it was difficult,” she said.

Davis stumbled upon Dress for Success when donating clothes for a friend. The classes helped her regain confidence. She bolstered her résumé and interview skills.

Having been taught that a lady should never bring attention to herself, she said, she had never told potential employers about studying sign language at Prince George’s Community College. That is a valuable second language in the Washington area, her Dress for Success instructors told her. She was urged to take charge of interviews: not just sit back and let employers ask questions, but engage them in conversation about herself and the job.

“I was raised by a Southern woman who said ladies don’t brag or bring attention to themselves. That’s just not what ladies do,” Davis said. “I had to learn to be aggressive and sell myself. Men do it all the time, don’t they?”

This month, Davis found a job with a doctor’s office in Wheaton after spending a year in Dress for Success. On Thursday, she will be honored as an outstanding participant of the program at its anniversary fundraiser at the Pepco Edison Place Gallery.

The program has only a handful of full-time workers, operating mostly with the help of 350 volunteers who collect and sort clothes or work directly with women on their job skills. The clothing donations are a critical finishing touch, said Mary Beth Moore, a volunteer coordinator.

“Once you have a person who is motivated, you really want to give them the self-confidence that a good-looking suit can give them,” Moore said. “You get a lot of personal gratification when you see a woman look in the mirror and be proud of herself. It’s what keeps me going.”

 
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