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story.lead_photo.caption Gwen Shankle of Johnson, a volunteer image consultant with Dress for Success Northwest Arkansas, sorts through clothing Thursday at the agency’s Springdale location. - Photo by Andy Shupe

Julie wanted to start working again, but life challenges had knocked down her self-confidence.

The Rogers resident turned to Dress for Success Northwest Arkansas and credits that relationship with her government customer service job.

At a glance

Dress for Success is an international nonprofit organization that helps women become economically independent by offering business attire, networking opportunities and professional development skills. The organization began in 1997 and has 150 stores across the globe.

Source: Staff report

Dress for Success Northwest Arkansas boutiques

• Rogers: 100 N. Dixieland Road in the Frisco Station Mall; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday.

• Springdale: 703 N. Thompson St. in the Returning Home Center; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday.

Visit either store to discuss volunteering. New or gently used business attire that is clean and in-season can be donated at the Rogers shop.

Source: Staff report

"When you hit bottom and someone gives you a hand to get up, that changes a lot," Julie said. "If I had tried to piece together an outfit from the stuff I barely had at home, I think I would have felt really insecure and nervous."

Helping women get back into the workforce is the focal point of the organization. It provides women with business attire, interview assistance, resume help and other programs to aid them in landing a job. A large number of the group's clients live in poverty or face other circumstances that make it difficult for them to become economically independent.

The local affiliate had so much success in Rogers that the nonprofit group opened another office in May in Springdale. That location has helped 20 clients in the past three months, which is a lot for the organization in such a short period of time, said Virginia Germann, executive director.

"Any woman who is job ready and wants to get back into the workplace and provide for her family or herself, we are here to help her do that," Germann said.

All clothes are donated and cover a large array of styles from business casual to medical scrubs.

"I was treated in a way that kind of restored my humanity and dignity just walking in," Julie said. "I was given a fitting and complete outfits for interviews, which was kind of like a pep talk in a really caring situation and environment. By the time I left, I felt really confident and strong and ready to go."

Julie is identified only by her first name because of safety concerns.

Growing need

More than 860 women have received clothing since the Rogers store opened in 2013. Another 160 have used the career and coaching services, Germann said.

Germann said there was a need for a boutique in Washington County, where 40 percent of the organization's clients live. Reducing the distance they travel was important, because most of them struggle financially, she said.

Benton and Washington counties had poverty rates of about 11 percent and 17 percent in 2015, respectively, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Germann said Dress for Success tries to help women, with a majority being single moms, get back into the workforce to earn a living wage.

Washington County had 27 percent of its children living in poverty in 2011, according to a report published by the Arkansas Community Foundation. Benton County fared slightly better, with children living in a poverty rate of a little over 18 percent.

"We're here to help them secure their jobs, retain them and then grow their careers and provide for their families," Germann said.

Joining forces

The Springdale boutique is in the Returning Home Center, which provides services designed to ease the transition of previously incarcerated people into the community. The center opened in March in a 13,000-square-foot building on Thompson Street.

Nick Robbins, executive director of the Returning Home Center, said it received 40 new clients last month. Two months ago the center had 20 new clients, but that number has grown monthly. Robbins points to Dress for Success as one of the main reasons for that uptick in traffic.

"We wanted to find great community partners and service providers that could assist the men and women that were in need and already coming to our building," Robbins said. "We knew if we got the right people to come to the table and provide services, they could impact our lives so much more."

Robbins said one of the organization's goals is to offer as many services as possible under one roof because many of the clients struggle to find consistent transportation.

"We might only have this one moment with them," he said. "The likelihood of me scheduling something and them showing up tomorrow isn't the greatest, so how can I be the most effective today?"

Robbins said he reached out to Dress for Success because both groups could serve additional women.

Germann said Dress for Success has been trying to get a place in Washington County and jumped at the opportunity.

"What's common with these women is they're down on themselves," Robbins said. "They don't have a lot of encouragement. They don't feel like they're prepared to enter the workplace or have a place in the community."

Partnering with groups such as Dress for Success helps ease that transition, he said.

Julie, who used the Dress for Success in Rogers, said the attentiveness of the group's staff gave her the courage she lacked.

"When I went out for my interview I was already a little more confident because I had that confirmation and pat on the back," she said.

How it works

The boutique provides clothes for any woman referred to them.

Referrals are required because it means the clients are serious about getting a job, Germann said. Partner organizations such as the Samaritan Shop, Goodwill Career Services and all of the women's shelters in Northwest Arkansas provide the referrals.

If a woman comes into a boutique without a referral, Germann directs them to one of the partners.

Clients meet with consultants to discuss their situation, goals, aspirations and clothing preferences. The consultants choose a few outfits for the client to try. From there, they work together to pick out appropriate outfits for interviews.

If she gets a job, the client returns to choose a week's worth of outfits. All the clothing is free.

Germann said 35 to 40 percent of clients have come back to get clothes for a job they landed in the two years she has been affiliated with the nonprofit. She said the organization has a goal to bump that number closer to 70 percent within the next three years. They plan to accomplish this by implementing new programs and tracking their clients better to get a more accurate number.

"As far as staffing and volunteers go, I really don't think you'll find a more caring and genuine group of people," Julie said. "I think you would be hard pressed to even find that in a church. This organization is special."

Women also can set up appointments for career services like mock interviews, resume building and financial literacy classes. Coaching is mostly done over the phone. Experts in different fields lead workshops.

Julie said the programs helped expand her business acumen and brought her out of her shell.

"It helps you relax and make small talk and connections with other people," Julie said. "That's helped me quite a bit. It made me ask questions and engage quite a bit, instead of withdrawing myself and being shy, which I tend to do in certain group situations."

Robbins said he was excited about the prospect of Dress for Success eventually having workshops on weekends.

"People who show up to that workshop may not have known what is going on at the Returning Home Center," Robbins said.

The workshops are available in Rogers, but Germann hopes by next year to offer them at the Springdale boutique.

NW News on 08/14/2017

Print Headline: Dress for Success empowers women

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