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Orange County

Clothing Charity Needs a Fitting Place

Relief: A provider of outfits for women in need loses its lease in Stanton and gives away inventory as it seeks a new location.

November 18, 2001|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The women came to Working Wardrobes' storefront Saturday to help by taking. A blouse from one rack. A work suit from another. Shoes from the large boxes against the back wall until each ensemble was complete.

And they kept at it until the room was nearly bare.

"Lost our lease" sales are part of the strip mall business cycle. A "lost our lease" giveaway, though, is something you don't see every day.

Working Wardrobes, a small but vital nonprofit Orange County group that helps battered and addicted women relaunch their lives, will close its storefront site in Stanton by the end of the month, squeezed out of the donated space by a paying tenant.

The group will maintain its office in nearby Garden Grove and a retail outlet in Tustin while it searches for a new storefront for sorting and storage. Without a site for those operations, the group would have no place to take in donations and restock other stores.

"We need to vacate before Dec. 1," said Executive Director Jerri Rosen. "We're putting the word out to as many people as we can to find retail space that's closed, or excess warehouse space."

Plans to move into a Tustin strip mall fell apart two weeks ago, she said, leaving the group itself on the verge of homelessness.

"This is a shame, because they have helped so many women at the lowest points of their lives," said browser Samantha Sanchez, 34, a Long Beach mother of four who is bouncing back from her own low point: addictions to methamphetamines and alcohol.

On Saturday, Sanchez and scores of other women from shelters and residential diversion programs converged on the site, behind a Red Robin Restaurant on Beach Boulevard north of the Garden Grove Freeway.

Their mission: pick the racks bare so they can be stored until group officials find new donated space. Each woman from a shelter or program was given a voucher good for up to 15 outfits. Members of the public could also buy clothing at prices of up to $15 for a new or slightly used work suit.

2,000 Supporters Give Time, Clothing

Working Wardrobes was founded in 1990 by Rosen and the late Reita Bartlett primarily to help battered women lay the groundwork for independent lives. Since then, the group has helped more than 5,000 people--including some men--try to move from the margins of society to the mainstream.

As with most nonprofit groups, money has long been an issue. Working Wardrobes has two employees--Rosen and a volunteer coordinator--and an annual budget of about $300,000. It also has some 2,000 active supporters--including clothing retailers--who donate time, in-kind services and clothing.

Eventually, Rosen said, the group would like to raise enough money for a permanent home. For now, though, it will be happy just to reopen.

Most of the traffic through the facility is people dropping off donations, although there are occasional seminars for shelter clients on how to land a job. The group also holds twice-annual "Days of Self-Esteem" in which needy men and women are free to rummage through the racks and piece together wardrobes to help them step into the work world.

For many clients, the simple steps of getting a make-over and a new wardrobe have been transforming.

"A lot of the women we have have low self-esteem," Lori Guerin, residential manager of Kathy's House shelter for battered women in San Juan Capistrano, said Thursday before the giveaway. "They pamper them. They help them pick out wardrobes, help them with colors and that sort of thing, do make-overs and hairstyling and accessorize. They make them feel like queens. Then they have a job fair where they can pick up applications."

One Kathy's House resident, who identified herself as Heather, said the day she spent at Working Wardrobes last month helped invigorate her sense of purpose.

"I came here with two outfits and no shoes," she said. "I got outfits I could wear to [job] interviews. Outfits I can wear in public. I used to have just 'going to the grocery store at three in the morning' clothes, not 'venturing out in public' clothes."

On Saturday, Cynthia Merold, 44, of Fullerton, was one of about two dozen residents of Santa Ana's Phoenix House to roam through the stacks, piling clothes high on their arms as they searched for just the right styles.

"This is a tremendous help," said Merold, who entered Phoenix House seven months ago through a court-ordered drug diversion program. "They've done everything for us. This is wonderful, especially for people who don't have anything at all."

Merold will spend an additional five months at Phoenix House, then a year in shared living, during which she will be expected to have a job. Before then, she said, she needs to regain the kind of equilibrium most people take for granted: a stable living environment, clothes, and a belief in self and the future.

"This really boosts a lot of women's morale," Merold said as women bustled past her to search through clothes. "It gives them that sense that I am somebody."

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