Published Date Written by Joanna SmileyVera Matthews and Tammy Gray surveyed a rack of second-hand suit pants and hoped to find a neutral color, maybe a Talbots button down blouse and a pair of scuffed shoes.
These ladies are among hundreds of women across the state who rely on the struggling nonprofit, Dress for Success Maine, for free interview attire, job coaching and networking tips. Most of the women interview for entry-level positions in administration, retail call centers and medical settings.
Matthews earns minimum wage as a part-time greeter at a hospital and Gray depleted her life savings after being laid off from University of Southern Maine, though she's starting a new job on Monday.
Even though they've known each other for only a few minutes, the two women laughed as they grabbed hangers.
By the end of their shopping experience they'll each have chosen an outfit — free of cost — they can wear as new hires. A Dress for Success client receives one suit when she has a job interview and can return for a second suit or "separates" when she finds work.
Kimberly Allen, executive director of Dress for Success, said about 30 percent of the women who work with the group find jobs. Many live within 30 miles of the nonprofit's Congress Street shop, which the organization is opening a second shop in Bangor in July.
"I've worked for federal, state and county government jobs as a secretary. I'll stuff envelopes. I'll take whatever I can get," Matthews said. "I've been temping a lot, but it's slow."
Gray said she learned about Dress for Success through a friend and attended several of their classes to prepare for job interviews.
"I've been looking for a job for a year. I was on unemployment and made it all the way to tier three. I was living off of $1 a week," Gray said.
Gray hopes to still attend a monthly professional woman's networking event at Unum she's attended for the past year.
"The more you share, the more you learn, the more places things can lead. It's like having a women's support group. It's so needed because there's really not much out there like it," Gray said.
Dress for Success Maine relies solely on donations and volunteers to get by. Its largest fundraiser, "Suit Yourself Sale," happens Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland.
"We will have our usual amazing deals, vendors and raffle prizes. Most items are just $5. We are hoping for around 500 people. Our goal is to raise at least $15,000 at the sale this year. We have local business owners as well with tables," said Allen.
Although their fundraiser is key, Dress for Success volunteers are the heart of the nonprofit.
Volunteers like Mary Jean Major, from the Sebago Lake area, help women pick out and try on clothes. Much like how Matthews and Gray had instantly bonded during their shopping experience, Major quickly meshed with the pair.
She told them to "try anything and everything on" and that "it's most important to feel good in what you're wearing."
She doesn't hesitate, either, to speak up when a pair of over-sized pants "don't do anything" for their frames. Major sported a turquoise colored shirt and matching jewelry, and said she wants to look cheery for her ladies.
During her search through the shop, Gray tapped Major on the shoulder and told her she was embarrassed for wearing short socks. She found two dresses she'd like to try on, but didn't want to "look silly." Major scratched her head for a second and ran over to a cardboard box stashed inside the fitting room. She pulled out a few options.
Gray hugged her and hurried to try on her finds.
Next to her, Matthews had already found at least two pairs of pants. Both women smile at each other and close their curtains.
"It can be very stressful for our clients to even walk in the door and the volunteers are so friendly and encouraging that by the time they leave they are smiling, hugging and holding their head high," Allen said. "We also have a number of ladies that come back after being employed that want to volunteer and that is a great way for them to give back and show encouragement to the women that are just starting out on their journey."