Dress for Success

Jasmine Lucas wears a new outfit at a Dress for Success mobile pop-up event in Green Tree.

More than an outfit, Dress for Success gives confidence. They can provide so much more of that on the road.

Any number of factors can hinder women looking to enter the workforce and land a job, but a large one is an outfit for the first day or even an interview.

“The clothing – it’s just the foundation so that people can get to where they need to be to talk about the things that they really need to be saying. And so we focus a lot on clothing, connections and confidence,” says Tanya Mallory, who heads Dress for Success Pittsburgh. “It’s more than a pair of shoes. It’s truly breaking the cycle of poverty, and that’s why I get out of bed every day.”

Dress for Success’s worldwide organization of women empowering women has helped nearly a million women in 145 cities in the United States and 20 other countries. The nonprofit provides professional attire for low-income women. In 2018, just more than 3,500 women received assistance.

“In Pittsburgh, we’ve been around since 2005, and in Washington since 2008. Our 15th anniversary will be next year. And in that time, we’ve provided support to a little over 27,000 women,” Mallory says.

The group is looking to launch its new mobile boutiques, with one to serve the northern locations in Allegheny and Butler counties and the south boutique traveling across Fayette, Greene and Washington counties, in May.

“We started incorporating some mobile services in a very informal way,” Mallory says. “That resulted in an additional 600 women who received services who may not have otherwise been able to get to us. Lack of adequate transportation is a significant barrier for many women, particularly women who come to see us in Washington, Butler and Fayette counties.”

Dress for Success

Alexis Winbush, left, gets help from volunteer Brandi Baron as she picks out a new outfit.

On the move

The need for mobile services was small at first, helping women on an as-needed basis. And although Dress for Success Pittsburgh serves women in Greene County, the organization doesn’t have a physical location there.

“We serve Washington and Greene, but we don’t have a physical location in Greene County. So we would receive referral forms from the Career Link there for women who could use our support. Many times, women would say that they couldn’t come (to the Washington office) because I think it’s 28 miles to the office from Greene County, depending on where you are. A lot of times, people who didn’t have their own vehicle just couldn’t get there.”

This was back in 2013. Mallory recalls the branch manager at the time received word of a woman named Kelly in need. Kelly stopped working for about a year to care for her newborn daughter and was about to start at a personal care home just over two blocks from her home. Since Kelly didn’t have a car, this job was perfect. The only issue was that she needed medical scrubs and non-skid shoes for her first day of orientation. The referral came in on Thursday. Orientation was on Monday.

Kelly had no way to make it to Washington. Though she found this seemingly perfect fit, she feared she could lose it because she didn’t have the right clothes.

“She really didn’t want to miss the opportunity to be so close to her daughter, especially going back to work leaving her first (child) for the first time. That can be really stressful,” Mallory recounts.

So that branch manager received the information, loaded her trunk with some sizing options and drove to Greene County.

“She was able to start training on Monday, and so that was where the impact of mobile services started to really become apparent,” Mallory says.

Situations like Kelly’s would occasionally bubble up. The word started to spread, so the team would request a group of five to 10 women, so they weren’t driving back and forth for individual instances.

That started trickling to other branches. In 2018, Dress for Success Pittsburgh hosted 37 mobile events, assisting 614 women who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to make it to an office. But, these events were being run out of the trunks of staff members’ cars. It was inefficient and clunky.

“We started really fundraising and project planning and grant writing for funding to support mobile boutiques,” Mallory says of that initial stage.

The Washington branch hosts an inventory-reduction sale each June and December. The proceeds from the last two sales funded the south mobile boutique, along with grants from Washington, Greene and Fayette community foundations and the group’s annual fundraiser in October.

Leadership Washington County also selected Dress for Success Pittsburgh as their most recent charity of choice, providing assistance with donation drives and identifying high-need zip codes in the area.

With funds in hand, it was time to get to designing.

Dress for Success

Liz Mims, branch manager of Allegheny and Butler County for Dress for Success

Racks in vans and glitter floors

The mobile boutique, a Ford Transit 350, is amid a 10-week customization phase. Since this is a specialized vehicle, finding the right person to do the work was a challenge.

“Who needs a van with racks in it, right? Not too many people,” Mallory says with a laugh.

Racks will adorn the walls, and storage benches will hold personal care items, professional accessories and shoes. A fold-down table in the rear of the van will allow for space for paperwork and job searches. There will also be a space for changing and trying clothes on. Unfortunately, Mallory had to nix the idea for a chandelier – it’s a little too lavish and impractical – but the glitter floors were something she could get behind.

And unlike high-end popup mobile boutiques, Dress for Success wants to fit as much in the vehicle as they can to serve as many women as possible. Though there are so many unknown factors that could crop up, Mallory is looking to host launch parties in April and begin in earnest May 1.

Mallory says she learned a lot more about transit vans than she ever anticipated. It was a little more expensive than she initially thought, but their choice ensures the team can transport a literal ton of clothing and accessories. She was also surprised by the timeline. Fundraising was a long, slow slog. Once they hit that goal, though, the timeframe became very tight to fit in an ever-growing list of tasks.

But the wait will be worth it. Mallory is most excited for the efficiency a dedicated vehicle will bring to their mobile events. Past mobile events would be a day-and-a-half to two-day process, with lots of labor involved. But the boutique will be stocked and ready to go.

“That’s going to allow us to expand our reach. In Fayette, Greene and Washington, we’re anticipating at least two mobile events a month, which will be double what we did last year. That will give us the opportunity to reach a lot of women who couldn’t get to us last year. Of the women who did reach the boutique, 35 percent of them told us that they rely on rides from friends and family as their primary mode of transportation, which leads me to believe that there’s a whole lot of women who aren’t getting to us at all,” Mallory says.

And since many of their clients don’t have the support systems many of us rely on to make it through unexpected challenges, every individual piece must align to make something like getting to a job interview happen.

Dress for Success

Ta’Quaya picks out a few shirts at the Dress for Success mobile pop-up event.

Help in a hurry

“One of the things I find with our clients, and I’m sure that this is most women or most people in general when someone offers you a position, you want to say yes, even if you’re not quite ready,” Mallory says.

Transportation and childcare might be less than reliable.

“You don’t want to say no, so you don’t. But then sometimes it can get you into this trouble, where you’re not actually ready to start,” she explains.

That’s where Dress for Success comes in. Though the team, consisting of nine people covering five counties and four locations, tries to be proactive, they’re often putting out fires. Mallory says she often sees a lot of herself in college students preparing for their first professional employment opportunity.

“When I was wrapping up my master’s degree, had a call from Pepsi Bottling to do an HR internship interview. And I swear the first thing I thought was not, ‘What will I say?’ It was, ‘What will I wear?’ I didn’t have a suit. I wasn’t sure where to buy a suit,” she recalls. “I really could have benefited from a program like ours.”

Mallory says she was leaving the office about a month ago and asked a client in the waiting area how her suiting went.

“You all give more than suits, you give hope,” she responded.

That’s why she does what she does.

How to help

“When we talk about donations that we request from people in the community, we always say, bring it on a hanger. It’s got to be ready to go because if we’ve got to steam it, they’re probably going to wear something else. A lot of times they’re leaving and going right there (to work),” Mallory says.

Dress for Success Pittsburgh relies heavily on volunteers. Anyone with weekday availability to assist during a mobile event or at the Washington boutique could be a massive help. Inventory sales are open to the public, and this year’s sales will fund the mobile boutique: gas, insurance and the like.

For more information, visit pittsburgh.dressforsuccess.org.

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