Q: What did you used to do? 

A: I was a school principal and educator for 37 years. I started teaching junior high English in Lewiston, and also adult ed at night, in 1972 Before retiring, I was principal of St. Patrick’s School for two years, until it closed. 

Q: When did you start with Dress for Success? 

A: In January of this year. A friend on the board of directors had invited me to become a member, which I did, in November (2009). And the organization basically ran out of money. So they had to cut the executive director position to half-time, so the director moved on to another agency, and I got the position as half-time director. 

Q: What does half-time translate to, in the real world? 

A: The job is to do a 40-hour week in 20 hours. There’s no such thing as a part-time nonprofit job. Everything really depends on volunteers, on whom we’re relying more and more, building up the pool. 

Q: How many do you have? 

A: In the file 29 or 30, but about six who are very consistent, and several of those have been involved for more than 10 years. They’re into fashion, and devoted to community service. Many if not most are or have been professional women themselves. They range from the mid-30s up to the 70s — Barbara Kriger, and she is remarkable. So are Kathleen Weggler and Laurel Ricci and Alana Besanko, one of the originals (volunteers). 

Q: Your job entails … 

A: Everything from a lot of grant writing, to fitting the right shoe size. I’ve learned that to make this work, as a half-time person, I have to delegate more. 

Q: And Dress for Success is — 

A: We’re a nonprofit charitable organization registered as a 501(c)3. The organization started in 1997. It was the brainchild of Merle Nelson, who was in the Legislature at the time. She and (newscasters) Kim Block and Neila Smith got together and created the organization as Well Suited. I remember contacting them on behalf of students who were going for jobs but didn’t have any professional clothes. The name changed in 2005 and we became part of the worldwide organization, which is now in more than 80 countries. One of the advantages of that is contacts with companies that make huge donations. We get a lot of free new clothing from Dress Barn and Ann Taylor, and jewelry from Lia Sophia. 

Q: So what you do is — 

A: Provide professional business clothing so that disadvantaged women can go to a job interview dressed the part, and be competitive candidates. So many don’t have the right clothes, and because they don’t have a job, they can’t buy them. Our giving them that leg up helps them become much more competitive when they are interviewed. After they get a job, they come back and we dress them for a week. then they know the culture of the (work) place and the expectations for dress. Most businesses require business casual; not too many require a full suit every day.

So that’s the clothes arm. The next thing is, we provide a support network with a once-a-month meeting called the Professional Women’s Group, part of the national organization.

The purpose is to provide development tools and build up leadership skills. 

Q: Are all the clothes new? 

A: Many are. I would say, probably, 35 percent, from different corporate donors. And the rest are donated by individual women from all walks of life. We are pretty strict about what we accept. I’ll sometimes say to a donor, well, would you wear this to an interview tomorrow? And we provide shoes and handbags and jewelry and scarves. L.L. Bean has made some significant donations. Last year, cartons and cartons of 100 percent wool car coats. We went through the whole shipment and the last four are hanging in the shop now. And Cole-Haan has been very generous. 

Q: Where do clients come from? 

A: They are referred to us, from over 47 agencies in southern Maine, and beyond. We’re doing as much outreach as we can. We’re it for Maine, yes. One of the criteria for eligibility is to have completed some kind of work readiness program. Women go into retail, office work, administrative assistant work, everything from BJ’s (Wholesale Club) to working in some of the local law and investment firms. Some have moved on in their careers, not stayed at entry level. 

Q: How busy is, the shop, is that what you called it?

A: We call it the boutique; that’s really how it’s set up. This year, we’ve served to date, as of yesterday, 208. So we’re looking at 230 this calendar year. 

Q: What’s the age range of clients? 

A: The youngest, probably 17 or 18. The oldest, in her late 60s. A lot of young people under age 25 have never dressed like this. With very young women, the education starts with how to wear professional clothes. One woman came out of the dressing room to say her pants didn’t fit very well, and they were hanging down to here I had to say, you have to wear them up on your waist. 

Q: What about men? Don’t they need help even more?

A: You know, I do believe there’s a need, and I’ve gotten four or five calls since January, but had to say that there isn’t a comparable agency for men. If I could clone myself. 

Staff Writer Deborah Sayer can be contacted at 791-6308 or at: [email protected]