Breona Brown, 20, was wearing a pin-stripe suit and pale pink button-down blouse.
Standing amid the racks of slacks and blazers at Career Wardrobe‘s new Chester location, she explained how she got here.
“I was working as a sales associate for a 7-Eleven in Aston, but then a whole situation happened with that,” she said. “They got bought out.”
After going through a job-readiness program at the employment center located in the same building as Chester’s new Career Wardrobe boutique on East Seventh Street, Brown started looking for work.
She answers confidently but avoids eye contact when asked about her aspirations.
“I would prefer child care,” she said. “I’ve wanted to do that ever since I started my own baby-sitting service at, like, 13.”
For now, she’s interning with Career Wardrobe.
In 1995, Career Wardrobe started as a volunteer-only organization in Philadelphia. Relying on donations of khakis, blazers, skirt suits and pumps, the nonprofit grew from a single office to serving all of Philadelphia’s TANF population starting this year.
TANF — or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — is a public benefit for caregivers who are unemployed, mostly accessed by women. Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services pays for wardrobe services for TANF benefit holders, and Career Wardrobe has steadily gained contracts to administer this program in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
This year, that means helping an estimated 6,000 people in Philadelphia, in addition to running two new wardrobe boutiques — one in Chester and one on Veterans Highway in Bristol, Bucks County. The organization will also administer the existing state-funded PA WorkWear programs in Chester, Montgomery and Berks counties.
“We need to be located where the people are,” said longtime executive director Sheri Cole. “So when you look at where poverty is in Delaware County, you’re looking at Darby and Chester.”
The goal is to reach more suburban clients outside of the TANF pool, who can still walk out with an outfit worth several hundred dollars for a co-pay of as little as $5. About a third of all WorkWear clients also participate in Career Wardrobe’s job-readiness education programs.
Individuals and department stores donate the racks of brand-name clothes and shoes, which Career Wardrobe staff cull, keeping only the apparel suitable for job interviews.
“The big shoulder pads … anything out of [the 1980s movie] ‘Working Girl,’ I probably can’t use that today,” said Cole. The Chester location will accept donations every Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Although the group’s wardrobe boutiques are usually by appointment, the doors were wide open during the Chester location’s open house. After the ribbon-cutting, a woman who had been at the Employment, Advancement and Retention Network office down the hall popped her head in.
“I’m really impressed,” she said, asking what it would take to use the boutique. A staffer answered that she will need to secure a job interview.
“Let me go do my job, so I come here and get a blazer,” she said, hurrying off.