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More than clothes

Career Wardrobe in Bristol provides free professional attire to unemployed locals transitioning back to work

Recognizing her calling: Tameka Young (right) was in the first cohort of customer service interns for the Wardrobe Careers Internship Program at the resale site in Philadelphia. She found something she was good at and cared about, and was quickly promoted to program coordinator after her internship. Source: Career Wardrobe

There’s nothing remotely easy about the job search process, whether it’s the in-depth applications or years of experience required for an entry-level position. But for many who have been unemployed for some time, there’s an added layer of stress – they don’t have the funds to purchase professional attire when they do, in fact, land an interview.

Thankfully, one local nonprofit is helping ease their worries and ensure they can walk into any room exuding confidence. Currently celebrating its 25th year of operations, Career Wardrobe, which has locations in Bristol, Philadelphia and Lansdowne, annually outfits an average of 5,000 individuals, the majority of whom are referred to the organization by its 100 nonprofit and government partners.

According to Sheri Cole, executive director, Career Wardrobe has significantly expanded operations since its inception.

“We started serving just women, providing professional suits for job interviews, and have grown from that mission to provide all clothing that people need for independence, regardless of their gender identity or where they’re located,” Cole said.

The Career Wardrobe in Bristol is based inside PA CareerLink, 1260 Veterans Highway, and most shoppers are clients of the employment service. They’re able to browse the small boutique and take home an interview-ready look for free.

As for the other two spots, 19th and Spring Garden streets in Philadelphia, and 62 W. Marshall Road, Lansdowne, both feature resale stores that can be utilized by the general public.

“People can donate their clothes to us, but also stay and shop. Everything that we sell, that money goes back into funding our mission and our program services, and that’s what’s really allowed us to expand beyond just professional clothing,” Cole said.

This may include scrubs for students entering a certified nursing program, steel-toed boots for warehouse workers, and everyday clothes for those returning home from incarceration, a domestic violence program or recovery house.

Ninety percent of clothing provided by Career Wardrobe is donated from corporations that run drives on its behalf, and individual community members who cleaned out their closet. Cole stressed that the nonprofit has standards when it comes to the items they distribute.

“Unlike the Goodwill or the Salvation Army, we’re not running a thrift store. We’re looking for things that are high-quality, that are in-season, in-style, that don’t need to be repaired,” she said. “Anything that we receive that doesn’t meet our quality standards gets passed on to a thrift store or a recycler who can then work with that kind of clothing. But we’re not dealing with holey jeans and T-shirts.”

When someone receives a referral through a Career Wardrobe partner, they’re granted a designated appointment time.

“They come in to talk with one of our consultants one-on-one about their job interview or their training program or just where they’re going next in their lives. And then they get whatever clothing they need, and they don’t pay anything for that clothing,” Cole said.

Even for people who don’t have a referral, Career Wardrobe will find a way to work with them.

“It could be that they’re already connected to a partner agency and they just don’t know it. The most common call we get is somebody who’s receiving public assistance and needs clothing because they’re in a job search, but because that system is so large, they didn’t know there was a way to get referred to us. So, we can work with them to make sure they get a referral,” Cole said. “If there’s no way to get a referral and telling them to shop on their own is still out of reach, we offer an open access program. With that, we ask them to pay $5-15 for their appointment, kind of like a copay at a doctor’s office.”

Additionally, the nonprofit offers aid in professional development, including workshops on networking and interviewing as well as a 12-week paid internship for job seekers looking for retail and customer service positions.

Tameka Young was in the first cohort of customer service interns for the Wardrobe Careers Internship Program at the resale site in Philadelphia. After receiving her certification in retail and customer service from Career Wardrobe partner Lutheran Settlement House, she was referred to the internship, a welcome change from her past jobs in the mental health field. Young found something she was good at and cared about, and was quickly promoted to program coordinator after her internship, a role in which she’s responsible for leading the customer service team.

“I make sure every client or shopper has a wonderful experience and leaves Career Wardrobe with an outfit that helps them feel confident,” said Young, who received the Woman of Courage Award from Lutheran Settlement House for overcoming her own adversity and assisting others to thrive.

More information on Career Wardrobe, including how to become a client, donate and attend its Hope’s Night Out: 25th Anniversary Silver Lining Gala on June 3 at the Ballroom at the Ben, visit careerwardrobe.org or follow it on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @careerwardrobe.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com

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