Give us a twirl, Keshia.
The young mother from West Toledo happily complied, striking a pose as she completes her turn. Arriving just a bit earlier wearing a hot pink T-shirt and light gray sweatpants, she has been transformed.
"I feel like a brand new woman," declared Ms. Cason, showing off the new outfit — black dress slacks, a cotton blouse in a soft pink, black flats — that she's been given by a nonprofit agency called Suitably Attired.
She'll wear that new outfit — and that newly recharged attitude — to an interview for a job as a shift supervisor at a fast-food restaurant.
"It's a confidence-builder," agency director Avis Files said of the wardrobe mini-makeover and personal attention that women receive in the agency's "boutique" that's packed with clothing, shoes, belts, scarves, and jewelry. Some items are new, some are gently used.
The boutique is just down the hall from Mrs. Files' office in the Monroe Street Neighborhood Center, 3613 Monroe St., in the Monroe Street United Methodist Church building.
"The outfit is the goal, and getting people physically looking appropriate, but the icing on the cake is that it comes with the confidence-building," Mrs. Files added. "Which is key, especially for women. You know how we are: When we look good, we feel good."
Suitably Attired is a professional clothing closet that since June, 2001, has been helping low-income women land jobs by providing them with an outfit they can wear to a job interview. After they get a job, they can return for a second outfit.
Juanita Jones is one of those lucky ones.
Laid off from her job as a cook at the University of Toledo, Ms. Jones just started working as an evaluation and training specialist at the Source.
"I don't have business clothes. I wore a uniform as a cook," the West Toledoan said, explaining that she's been wearing her dressy church-wear to work.
Now she's beaming as she steps out from behind a folding screen wearing one of her two new ensembles: black dress pants, black tank top, black heels, and a black-and-white blouse.
"I feel awesome ... I am blown away. I feel so good," she marveled.
Deborah Batey, Suitably Attired's client services/wardrobe consultant, picked it out for her. Ms. Batey talks briefly with each woman who comes into the boutique, asking what kind of job she's looking for, and then quickly and expertly plucks pieces from the racks.
"A lot of them have never worn business clothes," she said. "Sometimes they're not comfortable with the fit."
Some emerge in their new clothing saying "I look like my mother." Some say "I didn't think I could look like this."
"Sometimes they'll be amazed at the difference," Ms. Batey said.
As she works with them to pull the pieces together, she dispenses advice for their job interview: Smile, make eye contact, offer a firm handshake.
Meanwhile, other women sit in the hallway, awaiting their turn. Starting in September, a "soft skills employment workshop" will be presented to those in line. It will cover skills for interviews as well as expectations on the job, such as the importance of being on time.
Mrs. Files herself is new to her job as director of Suitably Attired, having been named to the position on July 6.
One of nine programs operated by Toledo Area Ministries, the agency has served more than 3,650 women since it opened. Last year's number was the biggest yet — 709. In the first six months of 2010, it was 336.
To be eligible, a woman has to be actively searching for a job and be referred by the Lucas County Department of Job and Family Services or one of its job placement providers. JFS contracts with Suitably Attired to serve a certain number of clients annually — this year, 425.
"We eclipse that [contract figure] usually two-thirds into the year," said the Rev. Steve Anthony, executive director of Toledo Area Ministries, "and then we have to generate our own donations to make up the difference because we try never to turn anybody away who is eligible."
People donate clothing and cash, and money also is raised from Saturday sales of excess clothing. Those sales, 9 to 11 a.m. the second Saturday of the month at the Monroe Street Neighborhood Center, are open to anyone. Most items are priced at $1.
Among the other programs in the building are Dress Right, which helps outfit male job-seekers, and a small hair and nail salon, the Finished Image, where cosmetologists volunteer their time to do basic haircuts, manicures, and makeup for people who are referred by social service agencies.
Almost all are women, said Cathy Craig, founder and director of the salon that opened in 2006. She currently has seven volunteers who each work two hours a month.
The goal of the salon is "to give women a hand up, to say if you really want to pick up your life and move forward we'll help you," Mrs. Craig said.
Women such as Janet Boyce.
"My last haircut was at least six months ago," she said as Jamie Weills trimmed and layered her hair. Ms. Weills, who is a cosmetologist at Attitudes A Salon and an instructor at Toni & Guy Hairdressing Academy, has been a volunteer at the Finished Image salon for almost four years.
Ms. Boyce, of East Toledo, said she's been "looking aggressively" for a job for about three years. "The longer it takes the more sense of self-worth is lost," she observed. "It's an erosion."
In a tough economy in which demand for jobs far exceeds the supply, can a haircut, manicure, and a proper interview outfit really make a difference in the numbers of the needy?
Yes, said Mr. Anthony, who makes his point with this story:
After a storm, a little boy goes out to the beach and starts throwing starfish back into the ocean. An old man comes by and tells him he's wasting his time.
"You're not going to make a difference," he says.
The boy picks up a starfish, throws it back into the ocean, and turns to the old man.
"I made a difference for that one," he says.
WHAT TO DONATE
Suitably Attired accepts professional and business-casual clothing (including scrubs for health-care jobs) in small to plus sizes as well as shoes, belts, scarves, purses, and jewelry that is office-appropriate. Cash donations are used to purchase items to fill in the gaps.
Black dress pants are at the top of the organization's wish list, says director Avis Files. Khaki slacks also are in high demand.
Also needed: dressy blouses and tops, suit jackets/blazers, pant suits, and dress shoes, especially in wide width. Shoes can be flats or heels, no higher than 2 inches. As colder temperatures approach, coats also will be needed.
In addition to an outfit, clients are given a small bag of toiletries, so Suitably Attired welcomes donations of sample and full-size shampoos, lotions, and similar items.
All donations are tax-deductible. Don't just drop them off; call 419-472-4752 to make an appointment.
Contact Ann Weber at: