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With new clothing comes confidence

Published May 18, 2007


Dress for Success clients Martha Joyner and Martha Laurent sat with executive director Pat Ellington and explained how the nonprofit had turned their lives around.

Kind comments peppered the conversation about the group, 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 out to Laurent and then quickly reached for a napkin to dry her eyes. Joyner looked at the two, fought back her own tears and noted that she too gets emotional when she thinks of where she has come from and where she is going because of Ellington.

The emotion is not uncommon. Many of the women stay in contact through the organization's Professional Women's Group, which holds monthly meetings to help clients build professional skills.

Understand that the tears are not 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 aid of donations and a small group of volunteers.

The shop is in the West Tampa Service Center at 1705 N Howard, where it's easily accessible for HARTline riders. It is a referral-only program, working with more than 60 domestic violence agencies, homeless shelters, job training programs and other nonprofits.

It provides a suit to women going through the job interview process. When the 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 Dominica who re-entered the work force after giving birth to twins. "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."

With a referral from the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance, Laurent received the suit she needed to be poised and composed. Today, she works for Cemax Inc. and will pursue an accounting degree at the University of Phoenix in the fall.

The support Dress For Success provided for 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 Joyner is on pace to graduate with a teaching degree from the University of South Florida this fall. After spending 13 years overseas in such locales as Guam, Korea, Japan and Turkey, Joyner wants to teach geography and social studies.

Her son, Jeffrey Washington, will start school at USF in August after graduating with honors from Plant High School.

"My son's success is a reflection of the time I took to get my act together, " Joyner said of Jeffrey, who hopes to complete Eagle Scout training this summer. "He came to a couple of (Professional Women's Group) meetings and saw what was going on. It was like, 'My mom has had some crappy deals but now she's not letting that keep her down.' He took that and applied it to himself."

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

The nonprofit, however, leads to long days for Ellington, 61. Fleeting thoughts of closing the doors cross her mind, but women like 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.' "

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

[Last modified May 17, 2007, 07:38:50]

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