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Helping clinch jobs one suit at a time

Published May 11, 2007


Dress For Success clients Martha Joyner and Martha Laurent sat with executive director Pat Ellington at Westfield Brandon's Panera Bread store and explained how the nonprofit group had changed their lives.

Kind comments flowed when they gathered May 5 to help launch a weeklong collaborative effort between the mall and Dress For Success, which helps disadvantaged women develop careers by providing professional attire.

But their tears said more.

"I stayed on as a member because of Pat, " Laurent said as her eyes began to water. "She has a great heart."

Ellington reached for Laurent, then quickly grabbed a napkin to dry her eyes. Joyner also fought back tears while thinking about what Ellington has done for her.

The emotion isn't uncommon. Many of the women stay in contact through the organization's Professional Women's Group, which holds monthly meetings to help the clients build professional skills and learn how to advance in their jobs.

Understand, however, that the tears aren't a sign of weakness. They are a symbol of joy and resilience.

"It's not like a pity party, " Joyner said. "Pat's really strong, and I wasn't for a while. I really needed a strong individual to help me.

"She will take you under her wing like you're her own daughter."

Ellington first opened her heart to these deserving women in 1998, when she started Dress For Success Tampa Bay. Since then, it has served more than 5, 000 women at no charge with the help of donated clothing and a small group of volunteers.

The shop is in the West Tampa Service Center at 1705 N Howard Ave., a site easily accessible for HARTline riders. Ellington lives in Seffner and is excited about the Westfield effort spreading the word about Dress For Success' mission to eastern Hillsborough County.

"It's a great opportunity to remind everyone about so many people who are here in our community, our neighbors, that aren't able to provide those things they need for themselves, " Westfield spokeswoman Taylor Clifton said.

Dress For Success is a referral-only program that works with more than 60 antidomestic violence agencies, homeless shelters and job-training programs.

It provides business attire to women for job interviews. When a client successfully lands the job, she returns for up to a week's worth of business-appropriate clothing.

Laurent, a single mother of three, said the confidence that comes from smart clothes can't be underestimated.

"One time I actually missed an interview because I went into my closet to find something and I couldn't, " said Laurent, a native of the Caribbean island of Dominica. "I had clothes from before but after two years, you change. Nothing would fit. I didn't have the money at the time to go out and buy a suit."

Laurent got the suit she needed to be poised and composed. Today, she works for a building-materials company and will study accounting at the University of Phoenix in the fall.

The support Dress For Success provided Joyner had more to do with outfitting her outlook than enhancing her wardrobe. After leaving the Air Force, she found it difficult to gain a grasp of the corporate culture in the civilian world. As the white mother of a biracial child, the social atmosphere seemed stifling.

"I had to jump through a lot of hoops just to live in South Tampa, " Joyner said. "We would come to get an apartment, and I felt like we were being judged at every turn.

"I had a lot of anger about what was happening to me."

Dress For Success helped Joyner overcome the anger and gain a foothold in the workplace. Now, she is on track to get a teaching degree from the University of South Florida this fall.

The story underscores the fact Dress For Success can't be defined as a clothing closet or a job placement group. Since more than 80 percent of its clients are single mothers, it's more about families than fashion.

The demands of running a nonprofit lead to long days for Ellington, 61. Fleeting thoughts of closing the doors cross her mind, but women such as Joyner and Laurent keep her going.

"You get the hugs and the thank yous from the clients, " Ellington said. "You see them in front of the mirror with their new suit, and they get so excited. They turn around and say, 'I'm going to get that job. You watch.' "

Fast Facts:


How you can help

Dress For Success will accept business clothing through Saturday at the Westfield Brandon concierge near Ruby Tuesday. Those who donate at least one suit or three accessories or cosmetic items get a free Sephora goodie bag while supplies last.

For more information about volunteering for Dress For Success, go to tampabay or call (813) 220-0868.


[Last modified May 10, 2007, 07:44:29]

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