'Dress for Success' helping women reenter Buffalo's workforce

July 29, 2013 Updated Jul 30, 2013 at 4:04 PM EDT

By Matt Chandler, Editor for The Buffalo Law Journal- Business First

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'Dress for Success' helping women reenter Buffalo's workforce

July 29, 2013 Updated Jul 30, 2013 at 4:04 PM EDT

For Tonya Jones, the excitement of landing a full-time job at M&T Bank was tempered by the nerves that came with re-entering the workforce.

Jones, who grew up in Buffalo, admittedly had struggled to carve a professional niche for herself. She said her efforts were hamstrung at times by financial and other limitations.

Indeed, while many women launching a job search have a polished resume and professional attire for interviews to come, for others, the resume is bare bones or even nonexistent. And a look inside their closets reveals little to nothing that a prospective employer would consider appropriate interview attire.

That was a primary concern of Jones, 39, until she crossed paths with Dress for Success, an organization that she said changed everything.

Clothing for change

Dress for Success is an international nonprofit that provides business attire for women not only as they search for a job but once they land one. A recent visit to its Court Street boutique in Buffalo, however, revealed that the impact runs much deeper than clothing.

Lisa Collins, a paralegal, is acting executive director of the local office, which opened in March.

"It means so much to me to be part of this organization," she said. "To see these women and the transformation that can take place is so fulfilling."

Though the all-volunteer group has 80 to 100 people involved at any given time, Collins is one of about a dozen who are fixtures at the downtown location.

"It started off for me as volunteering two days a week," she said. "Now I'm here every day and it's my passion. Law was my passion, which is why I wanted to be a paralegal, but this just gives me so much more fulfillment."

She points to Jones as a source of that pride and fulfillment. After getting help with outfits for job interviews, Jones is back to "shop" for clothes for her M&T position.

"It wasn't just them giving me a suit for an interview. They told me I could come back and get more clothing and things," she said. "That was huge for me because my last job was just jeans, flip-flops and T-shirts. I was worried that if I got this job, what was I going to wear?"

More than an empty suit

Under the organizational model at Dress for Success, clients - all of whom are referred by an outside agency or group - are paired with personal shoppers who help them achieve certain looks. Individuals who get a job can come back and get fitted with a week's worth of professional outfits.

"We know it isn't easy, even once you do get a job, to build up a wardrobe," Collins said. "We want to help them once they have the job."

Val Wallace is a professional stylist and owner of Looks to Envy, a Buffalo business. As a volunteer for Dress for Success, she was paired with Jones. From clothing to shoes to accessories, helping a client is as much about building confidence as it is about the look, Wallace said.

"When the young ladies step in for an interview, it's all about presentation," she said. "How you present yourself will lead to how people perceive you. I work with them to make sure they have that confidence and they present themselves like they are the only person for that job."

Jones said Wallace helped her immensely.

"I felt so confident going into my interview. In fact, the interviewer actually gave me a compliment on my suit and told me I looked nice," she said. "I didn't go in worried about how I was dressed. I felt totally comfortable."

According to Collins, the nonprofit has worked with more than 60 women since opening earlier this year. The goal is to aid 300 by year-end.

"We are all about empowering women," she said. "It isn't only the clothes. We work with salons to help get their hair done. We work with them on their resume and then we invite them back to be part of our Professional Women's Group to make sure they maintain that job."

Finding funding

Clothes, shoes, jewelry, hats and other accessories at Dress for Success come from private donations, though the organization has corporate partners, as well, including retailer The Limited. Collins said there are no financial requirements for clients who are referred by an agency or church.

Like other nonprofits, however, it's not easy to secure funding for overhead expenses. Still, passionate volunteers are determined not only to keep the doors open but to grow to meet the need in the community.

"Right now we are in the process of looking for funding - grants and those types of things - and we have also done a few small fundraisers," she said. "The clothes are donated, but as far as the rest of this, really it is all from the blood, sweat and generous dollars of our volunteers."

Future growth

Collins said outreach will include guest speakers, including a banker who will offer advice on how to open a checking account or balance a budget, life coaches talking about success and chefs with tips for family meals while balancing a career.

"We want to be a continual resource for these women, beyond the clothing. We want to be a well-rounded resource for the well-rounded woman," she said, adding, "We recently expanded from Dress for Success Buffalo to Dress for Success Western New York. If you can get to us, we will service you."

Another local paralegal, Maria Grisanti, is a strong supporter.

"I just love what this organization is about," said the wife of state Sen. Mark Grisanti. "I see it as a critical part of building our future."

She said many clients are young, single mothers who can't afford much in the way of a professional wardrobe.

"It happened to me," she said. "I was in that position and there was no organization like this for me to turn to. That's one of the reasons I am so passionate about helping them grow."

Collins, meanwhile, said the group has gotten lots of support from the legal and business communities. Donations of clothing or cash have been key to its success so far.

Among them: the Minority Bar Association of WNY.

"It's hard for these women to get ahead, to make progress when they face so many obstacles," said President Stephanie Calhoun. "I just think it is so wonderful that this organization came along and helps them in so many different ways realize their dreams."

Many of the volunteers come from the Western New York legal profession.

"I think they do act as role models, because they see what you can earn with a lot of hard work," Collins said. "It all begins with getting them that job they are interviewing for."

Volunteer Sara Rera is an associate with Gross Shuman Brizdle & Gilfillan PC.

"One of the things I do is teach paralegals at Bryant & Stratton, and a lot of those women are low-income, second-career women who don't have a lot of resources," she said. "We work with them a lot on resume development and professional skills, and providing a wardrobe is sort of an outcrop of that."

As for Tonya Jones, she works full time at M&T Bank and said she owes a debt of gratitude to Dress for Success.

"They are invested in my success and that's a great feeling," Jones said.

www.dressforsuccess.org

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