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THE GIFT OF TIME / VOLUNTEERS IN ORANGE COUNTY

Working Partners

Lilian and Wayne Crawford of Costa Mesa know the rewards of a job well done. As part of Women Helping Women, they provide clients with the tools to have a shot at financial independence.

October 20, 1998|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's Monday afternoon at the Clothes Closet, and Lilian Crawford is hurrying in and out of dressing rooms, waiting on women like a fussy fairy godmother in charge of so many Cinderellas.

"Oh, yes, very nice," Crawford said when Lori Scarpa, 49, stood before a mirror in a red suit. "That's a beautiful fit. And it's great with your coloring."

"I've got to do something with my hair," the Lake Forest woman replied, critically eyeing her reflection.

By the time Crawford had finished fussing over her, Scarpa was armed for her job search with a shopping bag filled with a white blouse and black shoes to go with the red suit, plus a couple of other career outfits.

"I have some clothing, but not this nice," Scarpa told Crawford, 70, who retired two years ago and has since volunteered at the used-clothing boutique run by Women Helping Women in Costa Mesa.

The nonprofit Clothes Closet aims to give women a new wardrobe--and, perhaps, a new life.

Most of Crawford's clients are fleeing domestic violence, recovering from an addiction or otherwise seeking their independence and an opening in the workplace.

Two afternoons a week, Crawford helps these women pull together professional wardrobes for job interviews and, potentially, a career. The clothes are free, since most of the women can't afford to build a wardrobe of suits and tailored dresses.

Still, her clients have to do more than just look the part. In the agency's learning center, Lilian's husband, Wayne Crawford, brings the women up to speed on computer skills critical to most better-paying jobs.

Women Helping Women started four years ago in an industrial warehouse when volunteers began collecting clothes for women in domestic-violence shelters. A year ago, the agency opened a learning center with eight personal computers, a gift of the national Soroptimists Foundation.

Today, volunteers such as the Crawfords enable the agency to assist about 650 women a year with services such as outfitting them from the boutique, helping in the job search and offering mentors and computer training.

"I like the fact that this is a self-help program and it helps the women get back on their feet," said Wayne Crawford, 68. "The women who come through here have had a pretty bad deal. Some are just out of prison, rehab or abusive homes. It's tough for them to get back into the workplace."

So while Lilian helps with image, Wayne runs classes, roaming from terminal to terminal.

On a recent Monday, he was trouble-shooting for five students from age 20 to 60.

"I did something wrong; I held a button too long," one woman called out.

"I'm clicking open, and it won't open," said another.

"What does it mean when you see a squiggly line under a word?" asked a third.

Patiently, Wayne explained the mysteries of Windows 95, pausing only to wipe the sweat from his forehead.

"These programs are forgiving when you make a mistake," Wayne assured one nervous novice.

The two-hour computer classes run for four weeks and cover the basics of Windows, one of the most common computer programs.

"Almost all of the women in the class are looking for a job, and any job they look for requires them to have some computer skills. This can give them the fundamentals," Wayne said.

Students' skill levels vary greatly. "You almost have to work with them one on one. A standard lecture won't work with this group," Wayne said.

Scarpa, the woman from Lake Forest, was in Wayne's class to improve her job prospects beyond a low-paying 30-hour-a-week position in retail.

"I lost my husband last year, and it's been difficult for me to focus," Scarpa said. "If I were in a regular classroom setting, I'd probably be lost."

Wayne helps even students who don't know how to type.

"I'm just learning how to turn the machine on and off," said Charlene Bakounians, 59, of Irvine. She was one of the few students taking the computer class for personal rather than professional reasons, part of her new life after separating from her husband.

"It will make me feel good about myself," she said. "It's a personal accomplishment. I have a computer at home I haven't touched. All of my life I've been low in motivation, and now it's time."

In a grandfatherly fashion, Wayne puts even the most anxious students at ease.

"He makes things very clear, and then he adds to that by following through," Bakounians said. "He individualizes everybody's program. He's always keeping an eye on everyone to make sure they're where they're supposed to be."

After class, students often head downstairs to the boutique. Most don't know that their teacher and their fashion consultant are husband and wife.

Most of the women are referred by any of about 70 Orange County agencies, primarily shelters, churches and social services groups. "Many [clients] come from abusive situations, and they left home with nothing but the clothes on their back," Lilian said.

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