Dress For Success builds women’s confidence

Ten years ago Denise Zellous had just been released from jail after being homeless for 10 years. Finally ready to turn her life around after years struggling with drug addiction, she knew the first step would be to find a job.

That’s where Dress for Success came in. Formerly a non-profit known as Corporate Collections, the organization put Zellous on the path to gaining employment and retaining employment.

ON THEIR WAY—From left: Dress for Success clients Sada Carpenter, Gabriella Cavanugh, Tanella McCullum and Iesha Bradshaw. (Photo by Rossano P. Stewart.)

“I’ve been going to them for 10 years. I started going to them when I was in a homeless shelter and they’ve followed me throughout my career in my job seeking. I wanted to go on a job interview, but of course I didn’t have anything to wear,” Zellous said. “I can remember for the first time being really really proud of my outfit and feeling a sense of worth when I got a job because I haven’t had one in a long time.”

The mission of DFS is to promote the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, a network of support and the career development tools to help women thrive in work and in life.

Despite DFS’ apparent emphasis on clothing, clients and staff say it is more than the clothes that make the woman. For Zellous, who has also been a victim of domestic abuse and rape, success could not be reached until she found her inner self-confidence.

“The clothes are important but what’s more important than the clothes is the way you were treated. They treated you with the self worth you didn’t have walking in the door,” Zellous said. “Even though the faces have changed their hospitality hasn’t. There’s people out there who will believe in you until you can believe in yourself.”

Zellous’ story was featured prominently at the 2nd Annual Women Rock event celebrating DFS’ 5th anniversary. The event on Oct. 21 at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture featured several performances by women artists with all proceeds benefitting the organization.

As an independent affiliate of the international organization DFS has served approximately 6,000 women in five counties in the past five years. Through their program women are given clothing for interviews as well as one-week’s worth of attire upon being hired.

“The clothing is important but it’s just a piece of what we do,” said Leah Shannon, chief executive officer. “A lot of people don’t know we offer a continuum of services for women returning to the work force. The clothing is a small part, and then we have all these wrap around services.”

The organization’s Professional Women’s Group is aimed at increasing employment retention rates for their clients. Their services include workshops on financial planning, time management, the written and unwritten rules of the workforce, childcare and transportation. Their Career Center also helps women gain additional career training.

“We break a simple but important barrier. After that we find a lot of the women will lose their job within a year. What we do is help women to retain their job. If a woman is active in our group for a year she will reverse that.”

Sixty-nine percent of the women served by DFS are African-American or another minority with many in their teens and twenties. Seventy-six percent receive public assistance and three or four of them have two or more dependant children.

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