A Closetful of Hope
By Jacq Gregg
How many times have we looked at a closetful of clothes and shoes, sighed, and then exclaimed, “I have nothing to wear!” Whether I am getting ready to go to work or trying to get dolled up for a night on the town, I have done this more times than I care to admit. But somehow or another, the crisis is averted. From my numerous options, I pull together a more than presentable outfit, get dressed and accessorized, and make it out the door without the help of my fairy godmother.
For many women, having nothing to wear is very much a reality. Imagine that you have landed a job interview after having been out of the work force for some time. You know that first impressions are important and you have the old adage, “clothes make the (wo)man,” swirling through your head. You open your closet door (if you have one), only to find an empty rod staring back at you. You have already drained what little financial resources were available to you on rent, food, and clothes for your children. You sigh, close the closet door, and give up on your chance at a fresh start because you have nothing suitable to wear to an interview. As a result, the cycle continues.
In 1991, Laurel Baer, Anne Jenkins, Donna Paulino, Mary Ann Moloney and Lynda Wright – five Chicago business women – founded the non-profit organization, Bottomless Closet, in response to the compelling need for services to increase the potential of women on assistance and to help these women achieve economic self-sufficiency. The founding mission of Bottomless Closet was “to elevate the employment potential and marketability of women welfare recipients who want to work. It will provide clothing, at no charge, to women on assistance who don’t have suitable clothing to wear to a job interview.” Bottomless Closet Inc. opened its doors for business on June 1, 1991.
A few years later, the New York Branch of Bottomless Closet was “established by a group of founding volunteers in response to an August, 1996 New York Times article that spoke about the obstacles that mothers on public assistance had seeking work, including the lack of appropriate interview clothing and the lack of self-confidence to present themselves professionally in an unfamiliar interview setting.” The passage of The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (or The Welfare Reform Act), which imposed a time limit on receiving federal welfare benefits, also moved these founders to act, particularly since the transition from public assistance to the workforce became all the more difficult as a result of the new legislation.
I first learned of the organization in 2006. The New Member Committee of my church here in New York had taken on the volunteer project of organizing a clothing/accessories drive. I was tasked with collecting the items, making sure that they were work appropriate and in good condition, and packing and delivering them to Bottomless Closet NYC. That same year, along with a minister and another volunteer from my church, I attended Bottomless Closet’s annual spring luncheon. During the short program, I listened to a key note speaker give a few words, and I watched as a corporate honoree was presented with an award. But what stuck with me the most, was the segment of the program where Bottomless Closet volunteers and clients shared their compelling stories and transformations. The idea of women helping women really appealed to me. As I watched through tears, I heard myself say out loud, “I am going to get involved with the work of this organization.”
Over the next couple of years, while donating from my own closet, I also collected donations from friends and colleagues. At one point, the area surrounding my work desk had become so overcrowded with donation bags of clothing that I ran out of foot space. Luckily, the desk next to mine was unoccupied at the time so that area became a clothing triage. Because of my hectic work schedule, I had not yet found the time to dedicate some hands-on hours at BC’s office, but I continued to attend the annual luncheons and be inspired by the women and their stories.
In 2011, I became a casualty of department down-sizing. I found myself amongst the ranks of the unemployed. I was pounding the pavement doing what I was supposed to do to find work, but nothing had materialized. Instead of sitting around and feeling sorry for myself, I viewed this as an opportunity to give back, to finally put in some hands-on time down at Bottomless Closet NYC’s headquarters. I reported for training, received a tour of “The Boutique,” and filled out the necessary paperwork. After shadowing other volunteers for a few days, I was ready to meet clients on my own, to try my hand at being a clothing consultant and an interview coach. Clients are initially referred to Bottomless Closet by a partnering organization once they have secured a job interview. These women come from “diverse backgrounds and experiences including women who are on public assistance, formally incarcerated, single mothers, survivors of domestic violence, and women living in shelters.” As a clothing consultant and an interview coach, I worked one-on one with clients, assisting with the selection of their interview clothing, reviewing their resumes and helping them prepare for their interviews. It was such a rewarding experience! In my own way, I considered it a ministry. I remember one particular client expressing her gratitude, telling me that I was such a blessing. I don’t think she realized how much of a blessing she was to me. Yes, I was out of work, but through my work with Bottomless Closet NYC, I felt useful.
The work of Bottomless Closet doesn’t just stop after the outfits have been selected and the interview coaching has been completed. The clients are encouraged to return and participate in professional development and financial management workshops, as well as take advantage of the personal enrichment opportunities. The workshops provide the opportunity for women to learn the concrete skills required to succeed professionally and personally. According to Bottomless Closet, “[their] services are provided with the goal of strengthening a woman’s ability to secure and maintain employment, overcome the challenges of poverty and ultimately reach self-sufficiency.”
I’ve witnessed first-hand how the right ensemble can boost the confidence and self-esteem of clients. I’ve read the success stories and have viewed the testimonial videos. I have since re-joined the work force and have not been able to put in any hours at Bottomless Closet. I miss my work with this amazing organization! I may not have had a carriage or handsome coachmen to offer, but for a short period of time, I felt like a fairy godmother, offering my time and talent to assist women getting back into the workforce. There is a closetful of hope at Bottomless Closet.