After twenty years in Philadelphia, the nonprofit Career Wardrobe
has an unparalleled view of the modern road from poverty and unemployment to self-sufficiency and jobs.
"It’s hard to believe," enthuses Executive Director Sheri Cole, who has been with Career Wardrobe for fifteen years. "It’s amazing to think how far we’ve come, and how much we’ve grown."
Career Wardrobe aids unemployed women, many living in poverty or on welfare, who want to get a job, but can’t afford the clothing they need to make the right impression at job interviews. In addition to supplying a full professional-grade outfit to clients -- right down to the shoes and accessories -- the organization also offers a range of career help, including workshops on job hunting and interviews, computer lab access, and services such as headshots for business profiles.
"We’ve tried hard to remain relevant to what the community needs," insists Cole.
Career Wardrobe launched prior to the welfare reforms of the Clinton administration. At that time, many of the organization's clients came to them via a "referral partner system" with other nonprofits such as housing or domestic abuse programs, because there weren’t state-funded job-training programs.
Welfare reform, requiring that recipients job-hunt to qualify for their assistance, ushered in a whole new era of government-funded job training programs, and a new source of partnerships for Career Wardrobe.
By 2001, Career wardrobe had as many as 200 different job-training programs referring clients, but now, the nationwide trend is a reduction in funding for these programs, and that number has sunk to about 50.
"When we started about 20 years ago, we were very strict in how women could come to us," she explains. Now, as the organization has grown and job-training services have contracted, Career Wardrobe is taking a more inclusive tack. Its Open Access Program is available to any unemployed woman, including students or people who have just lost their jobs; they can access "professional clothing services" for small fees on a sliding scale.
Open Access means greater engagement with the public, including workshops at Free Library branches. The new motto, according to Cole, is, "You’re unemployed? You qualify."
"I would like to be helping women who are newly unemployed, so they won’t be falling into poverty," she says. Often a donated $100 suit can be the difference between a quick return to the workforce or longterm reliance on government assistance.
There’s plenty in the works for Career Wardrobe over the next few months: In September, they’ll be moving their current offices on 12th Street in Center City to a third-floor space above their existing boutique shop
at 19th and Spring Garden. The increased space will let them expand Make It Work For Men, a pilot program for gentlemen in need of career clothing.
In the meantime, the organization’s annual fundraiser, "A Perfect Fit Fashion Show, Auction, and Cocktail Reception
," is coming up on June 11 at the Crystal Tea Room. It will feature author, activist, and supermodel Emme, who will accept Career Wardrobe’s Fashioning Futures for Women Award.
Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Sheri Cole, Career Wardrobe