Trying on new lives

One man had been in prison. The other had been homeless. Both were in need of a fresh start.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

On an overcast Sunday in June, a group of men gathers outside Building D at the back of an office park in Costa Mesa, Calif. The only clue as to why they are here is on a poster taped to the door. The sign reads "Working Wardrobes Day of Self- Esteem."

By 8:30 a.m., nearly 150 men are mingling about the parking lot, sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups. They don't share much about themselves with one another, but they all know why they're here. They need jobs, but first they need new clothes.

Among them is Frank Divine, who's in his early 20s and a recovering drug addict paroled nine months earlier from a California state prison. Broad-shouldered with thick, muscular arms and short black hair, Mr. Divine has an intimidating air about him. Then he smiles, and brilliant blue eyes hint at a gentler demeanor.

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Lonnie Wright and his 8-year-old daughter, Ariana, stand by themselves. A tall, heavyset African-American with a mustache and clean-shaven head, Mr. Wright hesitates to reveal his age, but his bearing suggests the maturity of someone with a rich life experience.

He hugs his daughter gently, promising it won't be long before the doors open. An information technology consultant who shared in the success of the 1990s' tech boom, Wright hasn't worked in more than a year. And the despair is beginning to show on his face.

These men are from area homeless shelters and drug-rehabilitation facilities, or they are clients of government and private agencies. They are invited guests of Working Wardrobes for a New Start, a nonprofit organization with headquarters in nearby Garden Grove, Calif.

Founded in 1990 by Orange County advertising executive Jerri Rosen, Working Wardrobes provides clothing and job-preparedness training for unemployed men and women, and for teens in foster care. The organization began as a small grass-roots effort to fill a missing link in the social-services chain. Originally, a Day of Self-Esteem for female victims of domestic violence was planned as a one-time event.

At the first event, women from local shelters were treated to a complete makeover, from new hairstyles to new shoes. Ms. Rosen and her small band of volunteers hoped that their guests would end the day not only with several outfits suitable for the job market but with the needed confidence to take the next step toward independence.

With only three full-time employees and an annual operating budget of $400,000, Working Wardrobes will dress more than 2,000 clients this year. Ninety-eight percent of them are referred by social-service agencies, including California's Welfare-to-Work program.

In addition to the three annual "Days of Self-Esteem," Working Wardrobes now manages a clothing distribution center that houses a $2 million inventory collected from corporate and personal donations. Each visitor to the center receives approximately 15 coordinating pieces that can provide almost a month of suitable work clothes.

But Working Wardrobes isn't just about clothes. Employment-readiness training has become a principal tenet of the organization's mission. A trained corps of volunteer job counselors from the business community (called success coaches) conduct workshops at shelters, helping people assess job skills, draft résumés, and hone interviewing techniques.

"The biggest emotional hurdle for these people is believing someone will give them that first break," says Jan Slater, an Irvine career counselor and Working Wardrobes' volunteer coach.

Unlike the majority of similar organizations – most notably Dress for Success Worldwide, which operates in 75 locations from New York to New Zealand – Working Wardrobes extends its programming to men. Historically, corporations and foundations have responded first to the needs of women and children, making it financially difficult for nonprofits to assist the menin their community.

There is also the perception that men will be reluctant, even unwilling, to accept help. "Instead," says Rosen, "we were overwhelmed by their visible expressions of gratitude."

* * *

Outside Building D, Divine shares a life story that sounds all too familiar to the other men standing in line. He was raised by a violent, drug- addicted father who sedated his crying toddler by forcing him to inhale marijuana. By age 4, he was rolling his father's joints. He was abandoned for days at a time – locked out of the house and left to sleep on the porch. At 16, he was running from the police.

At 19, he was convicted of manufacturing methamphetamines. Divine was shocked to find how well he fitted in with the prison population. "I could see doing a 20-year sentence, and it not even bothering me," he says.

So he began to make changes in his life. Divine finished his GED and was accepted into a rigorous program in which inmates train and work as members of an elite forest-firefighting crew.

By the time he was paroled in August 2001, he felt ready for a clean start, but within months he had failed two drug tests. His parole officer gave him one more chance, offering him a bed at Walden House, a drug-rehabilitation center specifically designed for ex-offenders.

With support from staff and fellow housemates, he began feeling good about himself: "I started believing I was important."

With little work experience outside the prison system, Divine spent much of the first 45 days of treatment preparing for the job market. He knew that if he weren't employed, he probably wouldn't stay off drugs.

He met with counselors and attended a variety of employment-readiness programs, including one conducted by Working Wardrobes.

"We have job counselors," says Wayne Garcia, Walden House program director, "but these coaches have a different authority. They are from the 'normal world,' and these [unemployed] guys desperately want to be in the normal world."

Divine polished his résumé, practiced his interviewing skills, and filled out two dozen job applications. "Be yourself, be honest" became his new mantra. He looked forward to the "Day of Self-Esteem," considered a reward for the progress he had made.

From poverty to college grad

For Wright, the day was difficult. He, too, had known a world of abuse and poverty. He spent his early years in Louisiana, nurtured by a loving and devoted grandmother.

But after her death, he was brought to California to live with his mother and nine siblings. He was put to work at age 7, cutting grapes and sugar beets in the fields near Fresno, often forced to skip school so he could bring home a few extra dollars.

A strong student and athlete, Wright graduated from high school with honors and went on to a community college, completing an associate's degree in criminology.

He joined the Los Angeles Police Department and believed, as an African-American officer during the racially tense '70s, he could make a difference. But after seven years of battling what he calls discrimination within the ranks, Wright resigned.

He went back to school, earning a bachelor's degree in information systems from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He first opted for a career in residential real estate, but by 1990, Wright could no longer resist the lure of the explosive IT field.

For the next 10 years, he traveled the country as a technology consultant to companies such as Federal Express and IBM. Then in January 2001, Wright was laid off.

A man who had worked since childhood now began his days quietly at home. He tried to remain hopeful in a shaky economy, spending hours at government-funded One-Stop Career Centers checking for job postings and filing résumés on the Internet. He received funding through the Work Investment Act and pursued more technical training, assuming this would make him more marketable.

In August 2001, an offer came from an international health insurance company with headquarters in Ireland. But after the events of 9/11, the offer was withdrawn.

Wright lived on his savings for several months, and then he was evicted from his apartment. Wright's two grown children, just beginning their own careers, were unable to help.

With no money and nowhere left to turn, he and his young daughter, Ariana, moved into a roach-infested boarding house in Santa Ana, only a few miles and yet worlds away from their former upper-middle-class home in Fountain Valley.

"This was probably my darkest moment, but I couldn't give up, not with my daughter depending on me," he says.

A few weeks later, they moved into a homeless shelter. Although clean and safe, it came with a price. "Every day someone was in my face asking about my education and my credentials," says Wright. "They're telling me what to do, and they can't even work their own computers."

He was told to get a 40-hour-a-week, minimum-wage job. This didn't sit well with him.

"I'm very willing to take a mid-level position," he says, "but no one will hire you because they're convinced you'll leave as soon as something better comes along." Besides, "I can't make less than my unemployment check. I couldn't do that to Ariana."

At the shelter, Wright learned of Families Forward, a nonprofit organization in Irvine that provides families in need with temporary housing, food, credit counseling, and a variety of other support services.

Director Margie Wakeham describes the agency as a transition to independent living. Clients are guaranteed support for 90 days. "Any extension beyond that depends on their progress," says Wakeham. "If you're moving forward, then we may extend the services for a year or more."

Feelings of guilt and worthlessness are common for someone who has experienced a job loss, adds Wakeham, particularly for men, who see themselves as the family provider. "Their biggest hurdle is just walking through the door [of any agency that could help them]."

Wright and Ariana were moved into a wood-framed house complete with picket fence in November 2001. Decentralized housing is one of many ways Families Forward strives to maintain its clients' dignity. Wright joined a support group and began private counseling. He is grateful for the help but admits it has been difficult: "I've always been on the other side."

* * *

At Building D, the doors open at 9 a.m. sharp. The men are greeted by 200 enthusiastic volunteers.

Jose Marquez, a former recipient now returning to lend a hand, has already shared with volunteers the impact this event had on his life. "Working Wardrobes helped me step out and meet the world head-on," says Mr. Marquez, who now works in computer sales.

Conference rooms have been transformed into a clothing boutique, hair salon, photography studio, even a massage center. Volunteers, carrying boxes of socks and sodas, hustle from one room to the next, stopping to welcome their "guests." Even those men who appear guarded or anxious begin to relax.

All the men are handed a day's itinerary. Divine begins with another interviewing workshop but doesn't seem to mind. Wright, who shaves his head, is scheduled for a haircut but declines.

By 10 a.m., Divine is lying on a table, eyes closed as a masseuse kneads his right shoulder. Wright is sitting in a résumé-writing workshop while daughter Ariana patiently doodles on a notepad. Surrounded by recovering addicts and ex-offenders, Wright feels out of place. But since he hasn't bought any clothes in more than a year, he stays.

Just before lunch he's assigned a personal shopper, Sophie Cripe, a seven-year veteran volunteer. Together they maneuver through the crowded racks of clothes with only 50 minutes to select shirts, shoes, pants, ties – five complete outfits. Wright models a gray suit but prefers a more casual look. Everyone is smiling, even Wright.

"Look at me, look at me," shouts Ed Esmaeili, the only other participant from Families Forward. Appearing very GQ-like in an olive-green suit and black turtleneck, Ed greets Wright, throwing his arms in the air and repeating, "Hey, look at me!"

By the time the men gather at the end of the day, the excitement is contagious. Rock 'n' roll music vibrates from the loudspeakers as a barely rehearsed fashion show begins on cue with about 20 men parading through the room like experienced runway models.

Rosen takes to the podium and congratulates her audience on the physical transformation she has witnessed. They interrupt, clapping and cheering wildly for one another.

* * *

Two weeks later, Divine is scheduled for an interview at a McDonald's franchise in downtown Los Angeles. In a navy blazer, blue oxford cloth shirt, and khaki pants, he's a bit overdressed but obviously pleased with his appearance. He has his résumé, a new driver's license, and Social Security card in hand, as well as a flier explaining a $2,400 federal tax credit available for hiring an ex-offender.

He is visibly nervous, frantically looking for a quick smoke. He's never worked in fast food. "But I'm a quick learner," he tells himself.

At McDonald's, he waits an hour for the interviewer to arrive. He is offered a job, Divine says, and measured for a uniform.

But then he is asked for a copy of his birth certificate, in addition to the two forms of identification he has already presented. It's an uncommon request, but not an illegal one, according to an official with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Once an offer is on the table, an employer may ask for almost anything.

As far as Divine was concerned, he didn't have a job, and the thought of getting his birth certificate felt overwhelming. He stormed out of the restaurant, yanking the tie from around his neck. Two days later, he packed his new clothes in a duffel bag and left Walden House with a girlfriend.

"Odds are, without finishing the program, he'll end up in prison again," says Garcia of Walden House.

Considering a new career

Wright spent another summer looking for work and taking care of his daughter. Ariana is a national champion inline skater, and her father struggles to find the gas money to get her to practice. He rewrote his résumé to please yet another job counselor, something he says he's done 50,000 times – at least it feels that way. He continues to send out his résumés on the Internet.

Wright is eager to live his own life, yet he seems stuck between old habits and a global market that is constantly changing its rhythm. It is difficult for him to accept that the industry he has known for more than a decade is no longer the same. Those who make it, experts say, are those who continue to see the opportunities and who continue to view themselves as a success despite their circumstances.

Four months after the Working Wardrobes' Day of Self-Esteem, Wright is thinking about changing careers, maybe going into teaching or sales. The study manual for the California teacher certification test sits on his kitchen table next to a computer- programming manual. For now, he's tutoring a few college students and working part time at the skating rink where Ariana practices.

Divine has not been heard from since he left Walden House.

"We can't expect people to turn their lives around according to our timeline, says Rosen. "But it's impossible to offer these men too much encouragement or support. We have seen so many make it."

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