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Building Self-Esteem With a Working Wardrobe

Apparel firms combine good works, good business by helping women transition from welfare to jobs.


Her voice catches and tears cloud her eyes when Brenda Trujillo tries to explain how she felt two years ago when her life had taken a hard turn.

She was a single, unemployed mother of three boys, with the baby only 8 months old, who had run out of luck after several discouraging job interviews. She was on public assistance, ashamed of it, but not sure what other options she had.

Trujillo found job training at the Charo Career Center in East Los Angeles. The counselors taught her interviewing techniques, computer basics and even how to improve her self-esteem with a proper working wardrobe. Today she works at Charo, helping other women with the transition to work.

As welfare reform continues to bring more women like Trujillo back to the work force, many are learning to build a wardrobe that looks professional. Since welfare reform was launched in 1998, some apparel companies have discovered they can help bridge the gap for these women. Their efforts have proved so successful that some, like Mervyn's and Sears, are expanding their programs in California.

"We looked at the barriers to work: child care, transportation, affordable housing, and also in the top 10 was the issue surrounding self-esteem," said Jan O'Laughlin, manager of Mervyn's California Community Closet, a 3-year-old program that outfits women completing job training and returning to work. "We knew that if you look good, you feel good."

As part of their ongoing philanthropic efforts, Sears and Mervyn's had identified welfare reform as a cause that they could address. The chains and other companies, such as Garfield & Marks, have discovered the benefits of being good corporate citizens by donating clothes. The programs build trust in the communities where they do business; engage in creative, cause-related marketing; and develop loyal future customers in grateful recipients.

"I think any person who has the opportunity to have new clothes--it's special for them," said Trujillo, 27. "I'm the type of person who is really into building self-esteem. It gave me motivation."

Job counselors have witnessed how showing up without the right attire "can cost you the interview," said Christina Gonzalez, an employment service manager who counsels women returning to the work force via Charo. Even if the job allows casual clothing, the women need to look polished and professional, said Shirley James, executive director of Dress for Success Los Angeles, a nonprofit agency that provides interview clothing to low-income women.

"You need to walk in there and set yourself apart," James said. "Once you are in, then you look around and see what the environment is."

For Trujillo, like many single mothers with limited incomes, buying her own suits for interviews was difficult. "When you are on public assistance, you don't have the money," she said. "When you have that little extra money, the first thing you spend it on is your kids."

As Trujillo completed her job training, she was selected to receive a work wardrobe from the Community Closet.

She got the clothes, the confidence and the job--a position at Charo as a customer service representative helping other women find work, motivation and self-esteem as she once did.

She drew on that experience last week as she counseled Zakeya Brookins, a certified public accountant and divorced mother who went on public assistance while caring for an ill family member and studying for her California Bar exam. Brookins will be participating this week in the Mervyn's California Community Closet program, which runs four days beginning Tuesday.

Celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch will be on hand to help the women select their clothes at the Community Closet, a semi-tractor trailer outfitted to resemble a store. When Mervyn's finishes its run through the state, each of the 2,000 women in various job training programs, including 32 from Charo, will have received $350 wardrobes that include a suit, sweaters, blouses, accessories, hosiery and shoes.

On June 20, Sears is bringing its Fashion Takes Action program to Los Angeles. The program, launched in 1998, involves fashion editors and other experts who help low-income women select a wardrobe for returning to work. Four to six women in L.A. will shop individually with an expert. This year the program has expanded to 10 cities. Sears also donates a total of $100,000 to the national and local chapters of Women Work, a nonprofit job assistance agency, and sponsors a clothing drive that solicits professional attire.

Both Mervyn's and Sears' programs include plus sizes, which are difficult to acquire through donations, according to Ann Gusiff, founder of Clothes the Deal, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit agency that distributes donated business clothing.

Gusiff said about 20% of their donated clothes fit size 14 and up, but nearly 50% of their clients wear those sizes.

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