A Helping Hand, and More

Suited for Change Marks 15 Years of Outfitting and Training Low-Income Women

Posted May 11, 2007 at 4:49pm

Dressed in a pinstriped suit, Leary Short emits professionalism as she speaks about the nonprofit Washington, D.C., organization Suited for Change, which provides low-income women with business attire and professional development training.

Ten years ago as a client of the group, Short said she was fraught with fear as she was about to plunge into the job market after years of drug abuse. That’s where Suited for Change stepped in, offering not only clothes for work but also workshops on how to manage in the business world.

“I just know that Suited for Change came into my life at a time when I desperately needed it … to believe in myself and to gain self-respect,” Short said.

Today, Short has a career with Xerox Corp. and is the owner of an online travel Web site.

As a former client and a board member of Suited for Change, Short is among those who will celebrate the organization’s 15th anniversary on Tuesday. The annual event, which raises funds for the group, will be hosted by National Public Radio’s Michel Martin and will feature a silent and live auction.

Created in 1992 in D.C., Suited for Change began as a way for women with more resources to help other women who were less fortunate. Since its creation, the group has “suited” more than 13,000 women. The group also holds collection drives each year, but most donations are done by appointment.

“We really provide the accoutrements, the belts, the hose, the portfolio, the jewelry,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, Suited for Change board president.

But in addition to providing professional wear, Suited for Change holds seminars on résumé writing, interview skills and etiquette in the business world. Through the organization, clients learn life skills such as learning how to open a bank account and how to manage finances.

“We learned very quickly you can’t just give someone clothing … one of the most important things is to prepare them in how to handle [themselves] in a professional environment,” Austin-Hillery said.

She said the group hopes to expand in the next few years and to double the number of workshops available, which currently ranges from eight to 12 sessions per year.

Suited for Change also runs the Plus Factor Network, a partnership with black churches and civic groups to increase financial and plus-size clothing donations for the group.

Suited for Change attracts female volunteers from the District — many are chief executive officers, lawyers and Congressional staffers. With many high-powered women involved in the organization, Suited for Change is able to help a large pool of women who are in need in the area, Austin-Hillery said.

“Women in Washington, D.C., are very giving,” she said. “We recognize there is a nexus between women who are professionals and those who are trying to become professionals.”

Missy Edwards, a lobbyist who serves on Suited for Change’s 15th Anniversary Celebration host committee, said she got involved with the group because of its track record for helping women in need.

“I had heard about [the organization] and I wanted to help the best way I knew how, which is to raise money,” Edwards said.

Suited for Change also has received support from female Members of Congress and staffers over the years in the form of clothing and dollar donations. Annual clothing drives with partner organizations are held each year on Capitol Hill, and many staffers continue to volunteer with the organization.

“Suited for Change has had an enormous effect on people returning to work, often after long periods of unemployment and loss of hope,” said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who is a longtime supporter of the organization.

Austin-Hillery said that along with clothing, financial donations also are needed to improve the organization’s services.

“We recognize that it really takes dollars in addition to the clothing that people donate to expand our development skills training … for additional staff, computers and other technical devices,” Austin-Hillery said.

The annual anniversary celebration will take place at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Special items up for bid include tickets for the Blue Man Group and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”