Dress for Success Brookhaven guides women through job-search challenges

Dress for Success client Tamara Serrano, 19, of Dress for Success client Tamara Serrano, 19, of Mastic, is helped by volunteers Joyce Rubenstein, left, and Diane Lovizio at the nonprofit's office in Farmingville. Serrano has an interview coming up and was being fitted for a suit and accessories in the clothing boutique on Aug. 18. Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

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In early 2011, Susan Signorelli reached a career milestone -- 25 years at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton. The company honored her with a framed certificate and a watch. But the celebration was short-lived. By May, the senior administrative assistant was downsized with a group of employees.

"I was completely devastated," said Signorelli, 54, who lives in Middle Island. "I loved my job."

Finding a new one has been a challenge as Long Island and the rest of the country have struggled to recover from the recession.

"I truly believed that I wouldn't be unemployed for long, with all of my skills, but with the way the economy is right now, you could apply for 25 jobs a week and not hear from any of them," Signorelli said.

In June, after hunting for a few years on her own, she saw a flier offering job-seekers help with resumes, interview skills and other support and jumped at the chance. That flier was from Farmingville-based Dress for Success Brookhaven, a nonprofit launched in 1997 by the Town of Brookhaven Department of Housing and Human Services as part of its Division of Women's Services.

The worldwide organization is mostly known for providing free attire to disadvantaged or low-income women re-entering the workforce, but over the years it has expanded its services to focus more of its efforts on the job-search process and helping clients advance in their careers.

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Clothing donations come mainly from individual donors, but companies -- such as the utility PSEG in Melville, Bank of America in Hicksville and retailer Chico's in Woodbury -- also conduct suit drives on behalf of the nonprofit.

Walk-ins to the Suffolk office -- the only one on Long Island -- are welcome, but most clients are prescreened and referred by more than 150 local agencies, said Nancy Fieldstadt, an administrative assistant who works with Sharon Boyd, program manager of Dress for Success Brookhaven.

The suiting process involves more than meets the eye -- women don't just stop by and pick up an interview outfit, get cursory job advice and leave. Before clients arrive for their fittings, they fill out a detailed questionnaire about sizes and style preferences so that when they get to Town Hall in Brookhaven, they have a Dress for Success volunteer in the group's clothing boutique who serves as their personal shopper and assists with ensembles chosen for them. If an outfit doesn't work, they mix and match until the client is satisfied.

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Tamara Serrano arrived at the boutique on a recent Monday to get fitted for her first professional job interview. Serrano, 19, of Mastic, was assisted by Diane Lovizio and Joyce Rubenstein. The pair dressed Serrano in a dark, pinstriped skirt suit, and tried out several shoe and blouse options as well as earrings and necklaces to accessorize the outfit. After the fitting, Serrano sat down and spoke to Rubenstein, who gave her some job and career advice. When the session was over, they exchanged a hug.

"Dress for Success has made me feel like I am doing something with my life," Serrano said.

Experiences like Serrano's are highly gratifying to Boyd.

"I feel a personal obligation to help the women who come to Dress for Success, as they are in a period of great transition in their life," she said. "The additional support and empowerment they receive through our services and programs are immeasurable, and this is truly a rewarding and humbling experience."

Dress for Success Brookhaven serves about 500 women a year with the help of 23 volunteers, Boyd said. Many of them are retirees, like Kathy Pisculli and Lovizio, who have enjoyed long careers and want to help others achieve the same.

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"I was fortunate enough to retire young," said Lovizio, 59, of Holbrook, who until two years ago worked at an insurance company. "I believe that by promoting economic self-sufficiency, we are really helping women."

She and others at Dress for Success also understand that getting a job is about more than dressing the part.

"After you get the outfits, then the hard work starts -- you need to figure out how to present yourself, how to approach an interview and show the best of what you have," said Pisculli, 65, a Bayport resident and retired English teacher who eight years ago began volunteering as a personal shopper in the boutique.

That's where the flier that Signorelli saw comes into play. The nonprofit offers a Career Center where Signorelli and fellow Dress for Success clients can receive one-on-one resume and other employment assistance, plus a job-readiness program and a support group that meets every month.

Fieldstadt said the job-readiness program in particular gives clients a sense of renewal while motivating the women behind the scenes.

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"I get excited seeing these women go from uncertainty to some form of certainty in their lives," she said. "It gives them hope, and I love empowering them."

 

Support all around

Since its founding in 1996, Dress for Success Worldwide has grown to 89 independent affiliates in the United States and 46 in 15 other countries, according to Liz Carey, executive vice president of affiliate relations and information technology at Dress for Success Worldwide, which is based in Manhattan. Nancy Lublin, who at the time was a law school student, started the nonprofit in Manhattan with $5,000 she inherited from her great-grandfather.

After she trademarked the Dress for Success name, she began receiving calls about starting the program in other areas. The Brookhaven location was the first affiliate established.

Every affiliate pays a small licensing fee to use the Dress for Success brand name, but each one is an independent nonprofit with its own operating budget, board of directors and volunteers. What they all share is the same mission: to help women get jobs.

"We've had over a 60 percent hire rate for women who come through this program," Boyd said. "That's a huge number."

Before a fitting is scheduled, clients must have a job interview lined up. Suitings usually take an hour and are done each weekday except Wednesday. The interview outfit includes shoes, a handbag, costume jewelry and a new bra, and clients also get a second outfit in case they are called back for a follow-up interview. Once the fitting is completed, clients are invited to the Career Center for the one-on-one resume and other job seeking assistance.

An employment offer results in more help from Dress for Success, which then provides clients a week's worth of clothing and the opportunity to join another of its programs -- the Professional Women's Group, a support group that meets on the third Saturday of each month and talks about money management, child care issues and other work-related topics.

Pisculli, who also helps out in the Career Center, and other volunteers help Dress for Success clients draft or update their resumes and cover letters, navigate online job search sites and offer other career guidance, one-on-one.

 

Networking

One of the organization's key programs, the Wal-Mart-sponsored Going Places Network, is a nine-week job preparation course offered three times a year and is run by business consultant Corrinne Graham. Signorelli signed up for that, alongside fellow job seekers Michele D'Ambruoso, 40, of Deer Park and Gwendolyn Davis, 57, of Coram. Weekly topics at the Thursday morning meetings included organizing the job search, identifying transferable job skills, mock interviews and networking.

Even those not new to the corporate world found it helpful.

"I wouldn't have known to network with this or that person" to obtain employment, said D'Ambruoso, a human resources and accounting professional who was laid off in April and recently graduated from the program. "And they did a great job of bringing in people from different sectors of the professional community to tell us about their function, their company or their experience."

Volunteer speakers represented staffing firm Adecco, Empire Bank and Travelers Insurance.

For Signorelli -- who didn't need to be outfitted for her job search and instead donated some of her clothes to Dress for Success -- the course and the one-on-one mentoring helped her update her resume, create an attention-grabbing business card and summon a much-needed second wind as she continues her job search.

"After being out of work for an extended period of time, you start to feel disillusioned," she said. "But the Going Places Network class helps to restore your confidence and renews your sense of 'I can do this!' "

 

SIGN ME UP

Dress for Success Brookhaven is part of a worldwide organization and is located at Town Hall, 1 Independence Hill, in Farmingville. The nonprofit is always looking for volunteers to help out in the boutique or in processing donations, as well as helping out at events. Volunteers are also needed to help with fundraising activities, speaking at meetings of the Professional Women's Group and in the Career Center.

Because of storage issues, only seasonal clothing is accepted. Donation days are Mondays 10:30 a.m-3 p.m. Mondays and 9:30-11:30 a.m. the third Saturday of the month. from 9:30-11:30 a.m. The group accepts clean and current women's business attire (on hangers, please), accessories, handbags and shoes. Larger sizes are always in great need.

To learn more about how to donate or volunteer, contact Nancy Fieldstadt at 631-451-9127 or visit brookhaven.org.

 

YOU MIGHT CONSIDER ...

The career couture boutique, which opened in June at Suffolk County's One-Stop Employment Center in Hauppauge, offers free career clothing for men and women.

Contact: 631-853-6600; suffolkcountyny.gov/Departments/Labor

The Junior League of Long Island's thrift shop accepts professional clothing for its First Step program, which provides attire for women re-entering the workforce.

Contact: 516-484-0485; jlli.org

For more volunteer information and opportunities, contact the Long Island Volunteer Center at 516-564-5482; longislandvolunteercenter.org

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