Trying on new lives
One man had been in prison. The other had been homeless. Both were in need of a fresh start.
COSTA MESA, CALIF.
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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.