Entering the workforce again can be a rewarding yet difficult time in a woman’s life. One area organization is helping women to successfully make that transition.
Dress for Success Peoria (DFSP) is an affiliate of Dress for Success Worldwide, a unique organization which provides work clothing and suits for disadvantaged women entering the workforce and seeking interviews. DFSP has more than 80 affiliates in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands, with the Peoria affiliate established in 1999.
“Dress for Success solves the ‘Catch-22’ that confronts many women in transition trying to enter or re-enter the workforce— without a job, how can you afford a suit? But without a suit, how can you get a job?” said Laura Clark, program director of DFSP. “The mission of Dress for Success is to provide 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.”
Women are referred to DFSP for their first suiting after obtaining a job interview. During the first suiting, women visit the DFSP “boutique,” where they are assisted in finding a business suit for their interview. The Peoria affiliate has over 40 registered referral agencies in the Peoria, Woodford and Tazewell county areas. If the woman receives the job, she may then return to the boutique for her second suiting, where she receives a week’s worth of clothing appropriate to the job she will be working. DFSP has a second suiting rate of 65 percent, with the national average ranging from 20-25 percent. DFSP is heavily donation-based, with a majority of its clothing coming from area donations.
“Dress for Success is not about a handout,” Clark said. “The clothing that Dress for Success provides to our clients is not a reward or prize; it symbolizes our faith in every woman’s ability to succeed. At Dress for Success we ‘dress’ women on the outside and inside for their professional journey. By helping a woman succeed, we are also helping her family and her community. Dress for Success is about empowering women to take charge of their futures.”
One of the services offered by DFSP is the Professional Women’s Group (PWG), which provides women who have received items from the organization the ability to come together and develop valuable workforce skills.
“The Professional Women’s Group is the first and only national program of its kind, providing career advancement support and networking instruction to Dress for Success clients who have obtained employment,” Clark said. “Understanding that networking accounts for an estimated 80 percent of procured jobs, the PWG emphasizes networking as a tool for career advancement. The PWG provides a safe, comfortable atmosphere for women to share, grow and network with other women who have recently made the transition into the workforce.”
There are currently 42 Professional Women’s Groups throughout the U.S., Canada and England, with more being added each year. Affiliates must apply and can only begin conducting and promoting the group after approval has been granted by Dress for Success Worldwide. The Peoria PWG was established in May 2001.
“The PWG was created to promote employment retention and career advancement by providing valuable skill-building information while creating a safe environment to network with other professionals,” Clark said. “The PWG takes a comprehensive approach to moving low-income women toward self-sufficiency by addressing their social and economic needs in relation to work, home and community.”
The PWG meets from 6 to 8 p.m. on the last Thursday of each month. Each meeting consists of two key elements: a networking period, which includes dinner and member updates, and an expert speaker leading an informational discussion, with topics ranging from rules of the workplace, financial literacy and the balance of work and life. At the close of the meetings, members can choose additional clothing to complete a working wardrobe.
“Aside from the services provided at the meeting, the Peoria PWG members are encouraged to participate in our new mentoring program, From One Success to Another,” Clark said. “They are also invited to utilize our Career Corner to update resumes, schedule mock interviews and receive one-on-one career advice from our professional staff and volunteers.”
Dress for Success Worldwide has also partnered with other organizations to help benefit the women involved. Partners include Smiles for Success, which provides free dental service to DFS clients by participating dentists, Per Scholas, which provides refurbished computers to DFS clients at a reduced price, and Skill- Soft, which provides professional development to PWG members through online courses covering a variety of curriculums including computer skills, business writing and customer service.
The help women receive from DFSP and the PWG has paid off greatly. Through networking at the group’s last meeting, a new member learned of a potential job opportunity, and, after being given the details by another member, she applied and received the job. Several members have recently received promotions at their companies, including one who became the second woman in company history to be promoted to the inside sales division. The current Suiting Coordinator of the Peoria PWG is also a Dress for Success client, active PWG member and former Success Summit delegate.
Realizing the value of helping those less privileged, the PWG participates in many area events to give back to the community that has contributed to its successes.
“The Peoria PWG is very active in the community,” Clark said. “This year we are participating in the Moon Walk and Race for the Cure. For the past two years the members have participated in the Friendship House Christmas Adopt a Family Program, which helps families in need during the Christmas holiday with toys, clothes, household items and food. As a group they raised over $1,000, arranged sponsors for over 30 families, coordinated three corporate toy drives and hosted a Christmas party for the children.”
Every year the PWG also elects a DFS Delegate, who attends the annual Dress for Success Professional Women’s Group Success Summit Conference. This year’s summit, held at the end of July, marks the third year for the conference.
“The conference focuses on leadership skills,” Clark said. “The delegate then prepares a presentation to the group based on what she learned at the conference and leads the members through the processes of planning and implementing a community action project. The focus of the project is to identify an area of concern within their community and develop a project that will enable them to ‘give back.’”
For the women involved, the PWG has become more than just a monthly meeting to discuss work issues—it has become a place to celebrate their successes and share in the accomplishments of other women who can relate to their struggles.
“The PWG gives the women a sense of pride,” Clark said. “They have an incredible sense of ownership of this group. They want it to succeed. They care about each other. They have created a close circle of friends. The women not only get a place to talk to other women about personal issues such as their children, their home life, their dreams and passions, but they get a comfortable, fun and energizing way to focus on their career development. Through the PWG they come to understand that it is not about landing a job, it is about building a career. Each step that they take is a step on the path to self-sufficiency.” TPW
The Dress for Success Peoria office is located in the Peoria Friendship House of Christian Service at 800 NE Madison. For more information about Dress for Success Peoria or the Professional Women’s Group, call (309) 671-5200 or visit the official website at www.dressforsuccess.org.