Long Island's lone Dress for Success program has returned women to the workforce one suit at a time.
The program based in Brookhaven Town Hall caters to struggling women in need of employment. Run out of a second-floor office, the volunteer program has donated roughly 5,000 free suits and dresses to unemployed women preparing for job interviews since its 1998 inception. About 350 dresses or suits were handed out last year.
Dawn Wise of Bay Shore went through the program in April 2012. She spent 28 years as a J.C. Penney manager but was let go during an economic slump.
"It hit me out of leftfield," the 54-year-old said.
Soon, she said, several interviews came and went without a job offer, leading to frustration.
Wise says Dress for Success was key to being hired this past August at the A.C. Moore craft store in Holbrook in a capacity similar to human resources.
Those who have entered the program and its eight-week career development boot camp say it's a game changer, putting out-of-work women on a road to employment. Brookhaven uses more than 230 referral agencies to screen applicants for the program.
When a candidate has landed a job interview, she is "suited" to look presentable during interviews. National department stores like Macy's donate the attire. If hired, the women can return to Brookhaven for another five free suits, offsetting clothing costs.
"Most don't understand the mental aspect of not working," Wise said. "Feeling like a failure, almost getting to a depressive state, wondering what am I doing wrong."
Brookhaven Town houses the program and staffs it with volunteers. The town, which does not fund the program, operates its career center and clothing boutique and was the first of more than 115 nationwide franchises and the only one on Long Island. The international organization originated in Manhattan in 1997 and is open to all women.
Brookhaven officials said they believed in the organization's potential, thus the reason it was brought to town.
"It's not a handout, it's a hand up," Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine said in a statement. "I can't say enough about the program. It's a great thing."
Agencies such as the New York State Department of Labor, Hunter Business School in Medford and the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services funnel job seekers to the municipality.
Town officials say guest speakers are often brought in to discuss budgeting, investing and other financial advice through Profession Women's Group, a program Dress for Success provides. The program also partners with jewelry and underwear apparel companies, providing jewelry and other items, said Leah M. Jefferson, an advisory board member of the program.
The program prefers to keep women dressed in newer professional garb, so as newly donated inventory arrives, the town hosts a clearance sale for older clothing with all proceeds returning to the program.
"We want them to make their best first impression," said Diana Weir, Brookhaven Town commissioner of housing and human services, whose department oversees Dress for Success.
To volunteers in the program, helping unemployed women find a job is rewarding.
"These women aren't at the high point in their life. They get our complete attention, and it's all about them," said volunteer Rita Kiernan of East Setauket.
She reviews résumés and conducts mock interviews for The Going Places Network, an eight-week career development boot camp, which is also part of Dress for Success.
It was there that Wise said she realized she was being too confident in interviews. That -- plus the dress -- turned it around for her. Of the 46 women who participated in that job training network last year, 26 received jobs, much to Kiernan's delight.
"We're all there because we want to be. It's one of the most positive experiences you can imagine," she said.
Marguerite Robinson, who lives in Suffolk County but did not want her hometown named, gained employment through Dress for Success five years ago but was laid off from her Manhattan software training job last year.
Despite losing her job, Robinson said the program was a success because it builds self-esteem.
"It's a good recycling of clothes," Weir said. "We want them completely dressed from head to toe."