‘I gained weight because I’ve stopped using crack” or ‘I didn’t use to wear skirts because I used to have bruises on my knees because my boyfriend was a jerk.’ When you help them shop, you hear their stories.
Carol Gutierrez, resource manager at Women Helping Women, uses the old saying, ‘Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime’ to describe why WHW gives impoverished women a place to ‘shop’ for free.
‘The external appearance is very important, as superficial as that is. Based on your appearance, someone can determine whether to give you a chance or not,’ Gutierrez said.
WHW, a Costa Mesa-based nonprofit organization, serves women in transition: women who have been abused, raped, struggled with substance abuse or suffered through other experiences that have influenced their lives in a negative way. The organization’s mission statement is ‘to provide professional business apparel, image consulting and employment search support to aid low-income women in attaining and sustaining employment.’
Sitting at the front desk in a collared shirt and slacks filing paperwork, Programs Manager Brateil Aghasi explained, ‘Most of the women who are referred to WHW are extremely impoverished Hispanic or Caucasian single mothers.’
Women who have completed their first steps to recovery, such as counseling, rehabilitation or time spent in shelters or transitional housing programs, are referred to WHW by those organizations.
At WHW, a personal shopper helps them find appropriate clothing while being encouraging and supportive. Aside from the clothing boutique, WHW offers its clients computer classes, resume development and interview strategies.
Aghasi welcomes two clients, Ashley and Natalie (names have been changed), at the door of the front office of Women Helping Women and completes their paperwork before leading them into the boutique, which is organized and labeled by item, color and size. The racks standing in the middle of the floor are full of black and tan slacks, while, blouses, two-piece suits, tailored skirts and blazers hang on built-in racks on the walls. A selection of shoes, including close-toed pumps, high heels, boots and loafers, is sorted by size, rubber-banded by pair, gathered in bins and pushed against the walls. Handbags are hung on the wall while a cabinet beneath them holds hygiene products such as shaving cream, lotions, shampoos and makeup.
Along with a suit or two, hosiery, a purse and shoes, WHW gives each client a coupon for a haircut at a salon in either Costa Mesa or the City of Orange. When given the hair coupon, one client said, ‘Oh my gosh! A haircut! I haven’t gotten a haircut since ’94!’
Brateil introduces Ashley and Natalie to their personal shoppers, staff or volunteer workers who aid the women in selecting clothing that fits and compliments their features, answer questions and make sure the women receive all to which they are entitled.
Ashley is a tall, voluptuous size 14. She has just found a job and ‘starts on Monday,’ she says. She doesn’t take a purse, as she already has one, her ‘life purse,’ as she calls it.
‘It’s Coach but its all worn out. I dropped it in the river once and I found the purse and it was OK and all my stuff still in it,’ she said.
Natalie wears a size 0-2, has long, bleached, dry hair, wears bright lipstick and is very tan.
‘Does this suit look OK? I don’t like nice pants or skirts on me. I like jeans,’ she tells Brateil and her personal shopper.
Brateil says, ‘We all like jeans. Don’t let our business attire fool you, we’re just like you. What you’re wearing looks really nice on you, you’re just not used to it.’
Natalie responds, ‘Really? Thanks!’
Natalie picks out a brown Armani suit. ‘Oh! Armani! I definitely want this suit!’ As Natalie tries on shoes she says, ‘Do these shoes look cute? They’re Coach!’
The last client to leave, Natalie gushes, ‘Sorry, I hate to make a decision. I’m such a horrible shopper. I’m so bad at making decisions.’
Later in the day, a minivan pulls up to the drop-off area. A middle-aged mom and her daughter emerge and ask, ‘Is this where we drop off donations? We have so many!’
The daughter says, ‘My grandma just died and we had to go through her house. She was a depressive and kept everything.’
Brateil thanks the women and helps them unload their car. The donors smile and say the clients should be thankful because they gave so much. The volunteers and staff begin to go through the donations and realize that the grandma’s entire bathroom was donated: all used and unused items including razors, toothbrushes, loofas, toothpaste and Listerine. Brateil tells the staff and volunteers to throw out all the used hygiene items, leaving 1 percent for the boutique.
Often, WHW’s donation drop looks like a trashcan. Even women who roll up in Mercedes or BMWs give trash, clothes that are stained or torn and 1980s attire. These gestures do little to help the clients who come to WHW to make a good impression in an interview.
Like other nonprofit organizations, and WHW’s clients, the financial situation at WHW is also unstable. Because of Hurricane Katrina, there has been a 30 percent drop in donations to other nonprofit organizations.
‘As a nonprofit organization, you’re always depending on someone else,’ Gutierrez said.
Despite the frustrations, Gutierrez said that the most rewarding aspect of working for WHW is seeing how the ‘cost comes alive.’ It is worth it to see women back on their feet and able to make a difference to the community and change lives. Eighty percent of WHW’s clients find a job.
Brateil tells every client, ‘Once you find a job, if you bring back your first paycheck stub, we will give you five more items.’ The trade is mutually beneficial. It rewards the clients for their efforts in finding a job while also providing proof of WHW’s success. The ‘thank you’ cards posted by the donation drop off graciously thank the staff and volunteers at WHW for helping them find clothing and for encouraging them. They are an indication of WHW’s success at providing women with the tools and confidence necessary to become self-sufficient.
Filed Under: Features