Career closet offers wardrobe, confidence

BRADENTON — Clothes are displayed with great care at the Women’s Resource Center’s career closet.

Blouses and slacks are sorted by color and pattern. Dresses are organized by length. And shoes, handbags and belts have their own reserved shelf space.

It’s much like a small clothing boutique. Except, the rows of clothes inside the red-brick building at 1926 Manatee Ave. W. serve a special purpose. They’re reserved for female job seekers in need of free wardrobes to wear on job interviews or the first week on the job.

The career closet is a service that’s been around for several years. But in this economy, it’s becoming more sought after.

Last year, the career closet served 480 women. So far this year, 375 have been issued clothes.

“We’re tracking to be double where we were last year,” said Ashley Brown, executive director of the Women’s Resource Center. “We’re finding now people that never thought they needed this service are finding that they do.”

No appointments are required to browse the career closet. Job seekers can simply visit during operating hours and are allowed up to five outfits per quarter of their liking, complete with shoes and accessories.

“We’re seeing mostly women who were laid off from long-term jobs walking in,” Brown said.

Job seeker Ruth Zurz picked out several outfits at the career closet. She is attempting to return to the workforce after she had to leave her Publix bakery department position to tend to medical issues.

Zurz found long floral skirts, blouses and silk dresses that she hopes will help her land a job.

“It was wonderful to pick up some very nice silk dresses,” Zurz said. “It was so perfect, I feel so comfortable in what I have found.”

Rita Wood, a volunteer at the Women’s Resource Center, spends many hours in a sorting room in which she goes through stacks of donations determining what’s appropriate work wear and whether it’s in good condition. Then it’s off to the career closet.

“Everybody here has their own choices,” Wood said. “There’s a variety of things they can choose from.”

The Women’s Resource Center was founded in 1990 by a group of Manatee County business woman who wanted a service for women who did not qualify for state assistance programs, but their income wasn’t enough to support themselves.

The center has since added job hunting classes such as seminars focused on helping seekers find a job and identifying employment strengths.

“We added that this year in response to the increase in people needing employment,” Brown said.

And in this recession, plenty are turning to the Women’s Resource Center for its employment programs as well as other basic needs.

Last year, 1,481 people visited the center for help, and 4,045 women attended the center’s programs such as employment planning, emotional wellbeing, relationships and social groups.

On Monday afternoon, volunteer Barbara Kirchner found herself helping a 20-year-old mother in need of housing.

Rachel Pena said her living situation in her parents’ home came to an end due to conflict. Affording her own place isn’t possible due because her on-call job as a LPN doesn’t provide her enough income.

“I’ve been trying to save, pay bills and this happened,” Pena said. “It’s kind of hard right now.”

Program director Maria Zavala says the staff is seeing a lot of Manatee County residents go through tough times. For the staff, which includes three full time employees, one part time and 11 volunteers, their main role is to be as supportive and positive as possible, Zavala said.

“We have to,” Zavala said. “So many people come in really feeling like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do or how am I going to make it?’ We help them see they’re not alone, and there is help. We feel like we’re offering women hope.”