February 3, 2011 in Washington Voices

Clothing banks help women get fresh apparel for new start

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Julie Ernest stands in the doorway of Our Sister’s Closet at the downtown Spokane YWCA on Monday. The clothing bank offers clothing and accessories to low-income women to prepare them for job interviews and the workplace.
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When women leave domestic violence situations they rarely have time to pack. Sometimes they leave in the middle of the night.

One problem is finding a spot in a shelter and a program that will help them put their lives back together. Another problem is what to wear for work; that’s how Our Sister’s Closet began – as a clothing bank especially for women who were victims of domestic violence.

“The women we see often come because a catastrophe has happened in their lives,” said Julie Ernest, Our Sister’s Closet manager at the YWCA at 930 N. Monroe St. “Maybe she has been kicked out. Maybe someone burned all her stuff. Maybe she managed to get some things for her kids, but nothing for herself.”

Since it opened more than 15 years ago, Our Sister’s Closet offers women’s work clothing, personal hygiene items, shoes and makeup. It helps low-income women who are returning to the job market by providing free professional clothing, job listings and referrals to other programs. And this week the nonprofit is kicking off a bra drive that will run through March.

“We will take any bra in any size and they can be gently used, but they must be clean and whole,” Ernest said. “We always need bras. And we always need underwear, but panties must be brand new.”

Bras in large sizes are in especially high demand.

It may seem like an unusual request, but a good bra makes a world of a difference to the woman who wears it – especially if she’s getting ready for a job interview or a custody hearing.

“Think about it, you only notice a bra when it’s poorly fitted or badly worn,” said Ernest. “And you know what it’s like in an interview situation: you think everything shows.”

Everything at Our Sister’s Closet is donated, and it’s free to the women who come in.

Some walk in from the street, but most are referrals from other women’s programs.

Once a woman has scheduled an appointment she gets a chance to do some shopping among the clothing racks. The goal is to send her on her way with two, three-piece outfits.

“We see between 135 and 150 women every month,” Ernest said. “We take a little bit of information from everyone, mostly to satisfy our grant givers.” Our Sister’s Closet is largely funded by United Way and the city’s Human Services Department, but clothing donations also come from national retailers like J.C. Penney Co.

There’s a similar program in Spokane Valley at Valley Partners. There, Rose Dimico has been volunteering for Best Foot Forward for more than 20 years.

“Every fall we do a special drive to collect career clothes for women,” Dimico said. “We have a special section for it, and women come for many reasons. Sometimes it’s for job interviews, sometimes it’s court dates or funerals or weddings.”

Best Foot Forward serves only Spokane Valley residents and offers men’s clothing, too.

Both clothing programs help their clients get fitted right and find clothes that are flattering and appropriate.

“Some restaurants require certain outfits like a white blouse, black pants and nonslip shoes,” said Ernest. “If you don’t own that, you can’t get that job.”

Dimico said that accessories such as necklaces, earrings and purses are very popular.

“We can’t seem to get enough of that,” she said.

At Best Foot Forward, women are asked for a proof of address when they come in.

“It seems like we are always in need of everything,” said Dimico. “We do have a lot of jackets, but we always need dress shoes and dresses.”

Ernest said that sometimes donors worry that the clothes they give won’t be put to good use, but she said clothing that doesn’t fit with the mission of Our Sister’s Closet is donated to other charities and clothing banks.

“We don’t throw anything out, unless it’s absolutely filthy and torn,” Ernest said. “In my experience, we nonprofit folks are pretty good at working together.”


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