For the students of Los Amigos High School in Fountain Valley, California, the gymnasium is usually home to their sporting events, pep rallies, or special assemblies. But on this sunny Sunday morning of May 18, this room serves an entirely different purpose.
Gone are the usual volleyball nets or basketballs flying through the air. In their place, racks of professional business attire for women line the perimeter of the room. Shoes ranging from sensible flats to modest heels dangle from a metal rack in the corner; purses and briefcases adorn several tables in the middle of the room. Today, this room is not just any old high school auditorium. Today, it is a fashionable boutique for those who need it most.
This day marks the 24th annual Women’s Career Success Graduation for participants of the Working Wardrobes Career Success Institute. Working Wardrobes is a non-profit organization in Costa Mesa that helps young adults and veterans alike overcome difficult life challenges so that they can enter the workforce with confidence. The organization provides numerous workshops on skills training, career assessments, financial literacy and much more. Once participants complete six workshops through the Career Success Institute, they are invited to the special graduation event, where they select two professional outfits and accessories from the hundreds of donations received.
Several women enter the gymnasium and are greeted by volunteers, or “personal shoppers,” to help the women find the perfect outfit. Two of these personal shoppers are UC Irvine students, Monica Stanford and Chanelle Guillaume, both fourth-year psychology and social behavior majors. These two students have been interning for Working Wardrobes for several months and have both been affected by Working Wardrobes in different ways.
Stanford and Guillaume initially got involved with Working Wardrobes through a field study that they are required to complete for their major. However, once they started volunteering, this experience with Working Wardrobes became much more than simply completing a necessary school assignment.
As part of her internship, Stanford is responsible for helping with wardrobe appointments, preparing for events such as the Career Success Graduation, assisting in the donation processing center and much more. Although her responsibilities do include some administrative work such as making phone calls or drafting documents, she has been able to see first–hand just how Working Wardrobes helps prepare people to enter the professional workforce with confidence.
Clients are referred to the different Working Wardrobes programs through several different agencies that help people through tough life situations. Some of these agencies include Phoenix House of Orange County – an agency that provides drug addiction and alcohol abuse treatment and recovery – or New Directions, Inc. – an agency that helps veterans return back to their families and societies with ease and success. People come to Working Wardrobes with some difficult experiences behind them, but staffers and volunteers such as Stanford and Guillaume are there to help them realize that they can move past these obstacles and achieve their professional goals.
“I have been blessed to be a part of this organization,” Stanford says.
“It has allowed me to do something completely out of my comfort zone, and has helped me realize that I can be a support system for someone else.”
As the different women walk through the doors of the gymnasium on this Sunday morning and set out to find their perfect outfits, it is apparent just how much Working Wardrobes has impacted their lives. One woman browses through the racks, convinced that she can’t pull off a professional dress and heels. But with a confidence boost from her personal shopper, she realizes that she can present herself in this manner. She takes the outfit and moves on to the next station – only one more hour until she gets to reveal her new self to friends and family.
After all of the women have selected their respective outfits, they move on to another station set up in the high school, where they receive a free hairstyle, makeup session and massage (services which are all offered by volunteers). Once their mini makeovers are complete, they line up backstage in the auditorium for the last component of the graduation: the fashion show.
The lights dim in the auditorium and upbeat music starts to boom from the DJ’s speakers. Sleek pantsuits and professional heels emerge on the runway as each model struts down the catwalk and gives her best smile to the audience. The crowd goes wild as one woman winks at the end of the catwalk – the same woman who was nervous and a bit self-conscious just hours before.
As soon as the fashion show comes to an end, CEO/Founder of Working Wardrobes, Jerri Rosen takes the stage for a final word before the recent graduates enter the new chapters in their lives.
“Does anybody feel different?” Rosen asks. “I’d like to have six women come up on the stage and tell me exactly what changes have occurred over the last six weeks, including today.”
Six women enter the stage and pass down the microphone so that they can each share their story of transformation.
“You’d think at my age, I’d know how to do it… but I was a statistic in the beginning of the recession, and all of a sudden found myself unwanted, un-needed and unable to get work,” says a woman named Stephanie from the agency of American Family Housing.
“So this has been a vitalization experience for me. I know I can walk out there tomorrow and get a job. And I feel good about myself.”