For those in the business of helping others in need, the call to do more is often unending. At Career Wardrobe, it came from within.
The nonprofit had been providing free or low-cost professional clothing and job-search support to Philadelphia women for nearly 20 years when it adopted a strategic plan more than a year ago to serve more people, executive director Sheri Cole said.
First that included offering a small-fee-based service to any unemployed person, not just those on public assistance, as well as clothing assistance for men. Now comes a growth opportunity well beyond Cole's imaginings, compliments of Gov. Wolf's administration.
Career Wardrobe has been selected by the state Department of Human Services (DHS) to run the PA WorkWear program in this region. Through the $830,000, 15-month contract (with the possibility of an extension to up to three years), Career Wardrobe expands its clothing and coaching services to Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties, starting Friday.
"I'm so excited to finally be able to talk about it," Cole said Monday. She was first approached by the state in November and got the official word in February. "I went to the board and said, 'I know we're all scared, but this is what we wanted to do a year ago.' "
In a statement issued Tuesday morning, DHS said Career Wardrobe "was selected through a competitive grant process based on the strength of their application as compared to the other programs that submitted applications."
There's no time for Cole to luxuriate in the news. The contract - which boosts Career Wardrobe's annual budget to $1.5 million - involves opening two new Wardrobe Boutiques, in Bristol and the city of Chester. Professional clothing and other help will be provided, by appointment, for those looking for work and meeting financial-eligibility requirements.
In Berks, Montgomery, and Chester Counties, Career Wardrobe will oversee clothing programs run by Berks Counseling Center, Montgomery County Workforce Investment Board, and Wings for Success, respectively.
Cole said those decisions were made after evaluating each county "and seeing whether we should be on the ground or go to the current workwear provider to see if they were interested in continuing the work."
In Bucks County, the boutique expects to assist up to 100 women this year, based on 90 served through the PA Workwear affiliate there last year, Cole said. In Delaware County, she expects to help about 450.
The new boutiques will be at 1260 Veterans Hwy., Bristol, and 160 E. Seventh St., Chester. The Bristol site, inside the state-operated Careerlink complex, will be open Tuesdays, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hours at the boutique in Chester, across the street from the Careerlink office, will be Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cole said she expects that the Berks County program will serve 400 women this year, the Chester County program 100, and the Montgomery County program 150. At all three, Career Wardrobe intends to implement its best practices, including workshops and coaching, as well as invitation-only events on such topics as body image, motivation, interview techniques, and networking.
At suburban locations, Career Wardrobe will institute the outcomes evaluations it tries to conduct with every client it helps in Philadelphia, Cole said.
Under the new arrangement, Career Wardrobe's responsibilities in Philadelphia also will grow. DHS has contracted it to serve the entire county rather than just the half that had formerly been its territory under the PA WorkWear program.
Consequently, Cole expects to help dress close to 6,000 unemployed job-seekers in Philadelphia this year, up from 3,175 last year.
Confident. Empowered. Motivated. Those were the words Eden Mason, 30, of Upper Darby, used to describe how a blazer, skirt, and blouse she got from Career Wardrobe's Philadelphia shop on Spring Garden Street made her feel. That was in 2009 or 2010, she said.
"I've always been a firm believer that you feel how you look," said Mason, now employed in human resources for the School District of Philadelphia.
Cole has led Career Wardrobe for 16 years, its only executive director and just its second full-time employee. Now there are 15, including three new hires for Bristol and Chester boutiques.