Darlene Lynch watched as Mary-Frances Wain and Lorraine Zito spun through the clothing racks at Suited for Change, looking for size 16 jackets and helping her try them on. The objective was to create the perfect interview suit, but the gray plaid was too tight, the black with orange accents was too '80s, and the red was, perhaps, too bright. Wain, 35, is executive director of this nonprofit organization, which outfits lower-income women in donated clothes "to increase their employment and job-retention potential." She's a tall, effusive blonde acting as a sort of personal shopper and cheerleader:
"Red's a power color. You look good in red."
"Yes, definitely, good color, good color, I must say so myself," said the 51-year-old Lynch, who seemed surprised. She's usually partial to bright purple.
Zito, a longtime volunteer, held up a black skirt with little pleats for Lynch to try on in front of the full-length mirror. "I love this skirt! I can't stand it, I love it!"
The women who show up for appointments have been referred here from more than 100 job-training and social service agencies in the Washington area. After months of training or drug treatment, ready to start a serious professional job search, they come to this small basement "store" at 17th and I streets NW with a mix of nervousness and hope. For the sake of important first impressions, they're allowed to pick out two outfits with accessories. Once employed, they may return for three more free on-the-job ensembles -- giving them a full week's wardrobe.
After several trips to the mirror, Lynch went with the red jacket accented with black-and-gold buttons, a black belted jacket, two coordinating skirts, a lime-green and an ivory blouse, a gold leaf-shaped pin, two pairs of pantyhose (all hosiery is donated new), blue and black pumps, a scarf and a purse.
Lynch, who admitted, "I haven't been able to buy clothes in about 10 years," has a favorite phrase: "Gratitude is an attitude." Grateful to the core, she cried and hugged Wain and Zito, her clothes-filled bags at her feet.
IT'S NEVER TOO LATE for a new beginning, said Lynch, a soft-spoken Sunday school teacher from Lanham. And she had been ready for one for a while. She grew up in East Liverpool, Ohio, the daughter of a steelworker and a homemaker, and one of 11 children in a two-bedroom house. She came to Washington at 19, working as a file clerk for the FBI, then at the desks of car rental agencies and, for four years, cleaning aircraft for Eastern Airlines until she hurt her back lifting heavy trash containers. More recently, Lynch sometimes filled in as a substitute teacher's assistant in the Prince George's County public schools, but she lacked the skills -- and the confidence -- to obtain steadier, better-paying jobs. Her husband was a maintenance worker for the Arlington County public schools until he was blinded in a car accident in 1999 and was left unable to work. With two sons in high school, Lynch and her husband had grown used to just barely getting by.
But Lynch felt a new sense of optimism. The day after her appointment at Suited for Change, she was scheduled to graduate from Training Futures, a 22-week program that teaches a wide range of office skills. "Like my instructor said, forget about what you shoulda coulda done, and do what you can now," she said. Lynch planned to wear her new suit to graduation. "I'm so excited, I can't stand it."
THERE WERE STILL BAGS piled ceiling-high against the walls at Suited for Change, the result of a clothing drive held two Saturdays before Lynch's appointment. The drive had brought in almost 5,000 items from about 400 donors, most still to be sorted by volunteers. "It runs the gamut," said Wain, one of only two paid employees at the 12-year-old privately funded charity, which outfitted its 10,000th client earlier this year.
Some of the donations carried labels from Talbots, Jones New York, Harve Benard, but 60 to 70 percent would be unusable: too unattractive, too soiled or nice-but-inappropriate for an interview. The program has received pajamas, evening gowns, a wedding dress, fur coats. It gets "a gazillion Ferragamo shoes," said volunteer Terri Prell, a former costume designer, "and I know why: People buy them, then find they're too narrow." These salable goodies are taken to consignment shops, while the rest go to charities such as So Others Might Eat and homeless shelters. There were black garbage bags of rejected clothes stacked in the little office area, which is decorated with a copy of the old thumbs-up, "We Can Do It!" war poster.
"Before donating," Suited for Change advises in vain, "ask yourself: 'Would I wear this to an interview or to the office tomorrow?' " What the nonprofit really needs are quality plus-sized suits and wide shoes for the 150 or so clients it serves every month. The most popular sizes are 18 and 20, but most of the donations are from more petite women, Wain explained, adding, "We used to love when Janet Reno was in town because her size is in high demand." Reno gave generously, as do other high-profile women in Washington. Tipper Gore once dropped by with donations from the White House.
These days about half of the women who have a first visit with Suited for Change come back a second time, Wain said. Lately, its clientele's needs have been changing. "A lot of our clients are getting service jobs recently, so we've been stocking a lot of white shirts and black pants to accommodate that."
Wain, a stylish former communications director for Neiman Marcus, is eternally upbeat with clients. "If the skirt doesn't fit, it's the skirt, it's not you," she told Lynch. Wain had high hopes for Lynch and expected her to return to fill out her work wardrobe. "I know we'll see Darlene back here really soon."
AT THE TRAINING FUTURES GRADUATION, Lynch was decked out in her new office attire, looking every bit the professional woman. She and the 30 other well-dressed trainees met for an early-morning "power breakfast" with potential employers and program donors in a banquet room at the Fairview Park Marriott in Falls Church. The training program is funded by a blend of public and private donations, including money from county governments, the Northern Virginia Regional Partnership, the United Way, corporations, foundations and individual donors.
Lynch's friend and fellow trainee Peggy Luong, who fled Vietnam in 1979, approached to tell her, "You look great."
"Thank you, thank you," Lynch said, nervously touching her gold leaf pin.
It was Training Futures, and a busload of determination, that had brought Lynch this far. She called it "a beacon of light in my life. I'm so grateful."
The program, with outposts in McLean and Springfield, is offered to Virginia residents (Lynch had been living with her mother, then dying of bone cancer, in Alexandria when she qualified for it) through Northern Virginia Family Service. Its classes touch on every aspect of successful administrative work: telephone courtesy, computer software proficiency, writing a cover letter, dealing with office politics, maintaining self-esteem. The participants, many of whom haven't been able to climb beyond dead-end, low-paying service and retail jobs, are called "trainees," not students. And, with help from Training Futures' small clothing bank, they're expected to dress in business attire every day -- men wear suits and ties -- though there are casual Fridays. No sweaters and slacks on other days, when training coordinator Susan Craver tells them, "That's a Friday outfit." They write thank-you letters to guest speakers and learn how to answer the phone with professionalism.
Craver, a longtime job-training specialist who co-founded the program in 1996, said, "Part of office simulation is acting the part before you feel the part." She had a warm spot in her heart for Lynch. "She came to Training Futures and said, 'I've done for others all my life and never had satisfying work.' " The program has a stunning record: More than 90 percent of those who enroll graduate, and of those graduates (about 120 a year) 90 percent find jobs with benefits. Craver likes to call the investment "trickle-up economics."
Lynch hadn't missed a single day of classes, held on the second floor of a nondescript box of a building among the strip malls of Springfield. She eventually wants a bachelor's degree, but for now she was hoping for a job that paid more than $13 an hour.
At the graduation breakfast, a few trainees told stories poignant enough to draw tears from most listeners. As a child, Janice Clagett was shot in the legs during a family argument; she later got pregnant at 15. Swapnil Singh went to work at 17 to support his family by fueling aircraft, after his dad was killed while working at a Vienna gas station. "I lost my father to a thief who robbed him for $50," he said.
Craver congratulated each graduate with a few sentences that were meant, she explained, to honor "the graduate's journey as worthy of praise and attention."
"Darlene," she called out, "we challenge you to truly know your time has come as you go out and find the employer who is about to get very lucky."
AFTER GRADUATION, Lynch got busy. She registered at the Virginia Employment Commission, did some cold calling, went to a crowded job fair in Crystal City that was a bit discouraging ("You know," she said softly, "there's a lot of people looking for work"), applied with temporary staffing agencies and left her resume with receptionists in offices advertising administrative openings.
Then she had an interview at the American Society for Training & Development, a clearinghouse for educational credentialing in Alexandria. It went well enough: She was offered and accepted a temporary assignment doing data entry for $14 an hour.
It was more than the $13 per hour she'd been shooting for, but she got no health insurance or other benefits, and she was a bit troubled by the $7.80 daily round-trip Metro ride from New Carrollton to King Street. And it was tedious work, she acknowledged, mostly processing the association's membership claims and cancellations, inputting and deleting addresses. Her eyes were often tired at the end of the day.
Still, it was a job, she said, even if it wasn't a permanent one. While it lasted, she had a paycheck and a real routine: She got out of bed at 5 a.m. in order to be at the New Carrollton parking lot by 6:15, before all the spots were filled. By 7:30 she was settled into her spartan, high-walled cubicle, which was outfitted with a phone and computer.
She buckled down to work until what was usually a half-hour lunch break. Shorter was better; she was trying to diet and lost seven pounds in her first several weeks on the job. Work ended at 4, when she headed home to pull supper together and later unwind with a cup of hot tea or a warm bath.
Sometimes she forgot to take a break during the day. "I'm strictly about working," she explained. "Don't get me wrong, I'm friendly, but I just remember what I learned about work ethics at Training Futures." Once she sat in front of her computer for five hours without even a bathroom break and "started to see stars."
The temporary position meant she was eligible for a return visit to Suited for Change for three more professional outfits. Most of the other employees in Lynch's office were younger, she said, "more casual." Many wore jeans, which didn't even make the cut for a Friday outfit at Training Futures.
Lynch preferred to stick with "business attire," she told Wain as she described the atmosphere in her office. "There's one guy, he was wearing flip-flops, like they do at the beach," she added, sounding genuinely surprised. She'd taken a few hours off to be at Suited for Change, and looked about 10 times more relaxed and confident than she had during her first visit.
"Burgundy is not good for me," she asserted. A yellow jacket was "kind of loud," she added, as she joined her assigned personal shopper, volunteer Sandy Arthur, in combing through the racks. In a few minutes, Arthur spied the Perfect Jacket. It was an orange silk, which, Arthur gushed, is "the finest thing you will have on your body, my darling. Silk and a cup of coffee, and it's a good day."
After a few other choice finds, Arthur laid out six possible outfits, all neutral tones, along with a poppy-red shirt and the fabulous orange silk jacket. Lynch liked them all, but Arthur steered her toward three pairs of pants (khaki, navy and gray), three jackets (ivory, pale green and the orange), coordinating blouses, two pairs of shoes, three beaded necklaces, a brown briefcase and a purse.
"Tomorrow I'm going to wear the orange, definitely," Lynch announced with a grin. And it wouldn't bother her a bit if everyone else wore jeans.
Christina Ianzito is a freelance writer in Washington.