Low-income women looking for good jobs get help with wardrobe

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Some women dress for success. Sylvia Larson, a divorced mother with no income, just wanted a dress presentable enough for a job interview.

''You can do everything to prepare yourself internally, but when you get in front of employers, it gets a little scary,'' said the Salt Lake City woman who about 16 years ago became the breadwinner for four children, ages 1 to 11.

''You know that within the first 30 seconds, they are going to form an opinion of you before you have said a word. So, I want that first impression to be good.''

Thanks to Women Helping Women, Larson's bold business suits reflect her new inner strength.

She is not alone. Business clothing donated by the public to the Women Helping Women Closet, a boutiquelike shop sponsored by the Junior League of Salt Lake City, annually is provided to more than 600 low- or no-income women entering the work force in hopes of becoming self-sufficient.

''These are women who have been going along fine until a catastrophe happens -- a marriage ends, a job ends, a fire destroys their home -- something prevents them from bouncing back without community resources,'' Junior League volunteer Sarah Marsden said. ''A professional wardrobe is one tool that helps facilitate them bouncing back.''

For Larson the road to self-sufficiency was laden with potholes. Her job experience included a stint as a bookkeeper. Once married, she stayed home to rear the children.

When the couple divorced -- and dad skipped out on child support -- Larson depended on government welfare, housing subsidies and any other resource that would pay for life's necessities while she juggled schooling and single parenting.

''It took me six years to finish a bachelor's degree,'' she said. ''I was still so scared, it took me another year to build the courage to get any kind of job.''

Larson was older than most applicants and lacked both experience and self-esteem -- a result of being abused as a child.

''I was afraid of anybody who sounded even a little irritated, much less angry,'' Larson said. ''Generally if you have a boss, sometime or another he is going to get irritated. It was scary thinking of how I would deal with that. Would I just dissolve into tears each time he looked crosswise at me?''

Through another community program, People Helping People, Larson received employment mentoring and a referral to the clothing closet where Junior League members log more than 1,350 hours in volunteer time each year sorting donated clothing, about 30 bags a month, ironing it, displaying it and coordinating outfits for women in need.

''Donations don't come in the way you see them on mannequins at Dillard's,'' Marsden said. ''What comes in is 15 sweaters, 10 pair of slacks. A fair amount of energy goes into sorting out sizes and helping women think about how they can coordinate what they have at home with pieces we have here.''

Clients, referred by the Department of Workforce Services, the YWCA and other social service agencies, can pick out seven outfits a year.

''I feel for these young moms who have very little education, and even after they go to work they don't have money to go buy clothes for their job. That goes for rent and food,'' said Marsden, who, like other volunteers, sees a need for more clothing as the economic downturn has forced more Utah women into the work force.

''The more clothing we can recycle, obviously the more women we can help.''

In the closet, women can find complete professional wardrobes -- new underclothes and stockings, shoes, handbags, blouses, suits, slacks, makeup, hair-care products -- ''everything they need to get from their bathroom mirror to a job interview,'' Marsden said. ''On the nights the closet is open we will have 10 or so women there at a time trying things on.''

For Larson, whose children now range in age from 17 to 27, it still continues to be a lifesaver. After several temporary and long-term positions, she recently again became unemployed.

''I can see that every job I have chosen, it has been out of desperation rather than career choice. It is still a struggle for me, but I am learning -- the hard way,'' she said. ''It is still scary to go out on interviews, but this clothing from the closet is kind of like an armor I put on. It helps me feel a little protected from all that scariness.''

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