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Jobless 'transformed' with right clothes

  • Story Highlights
  • Group provides complete outfits to poor women who are seeking jobs
  • With layoffs, Dress for Success has seen huge increase in clients
  • Along with clothes, advice on firm handshakes and grooming are issued
  • Organization depends on donations -- government funding has been cut
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By Rich Phillips
CNN
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MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- When they walk into the office, they tend to be a bit hesitant, a little shy. They really don't know what to expect, and for some, it's hard to believe there's really someone out there who wants to give them free business suits and other interview essentials.

Sonia Jimenez models the new outfit she will wear while searching for a job.

Sonia Jacobson helps Ernslyne Verdiu try a scarf with her new suit.

Sonia Jacobson, the executive director for the Miami branch of Dress for Success, sees this a lot. But she also sees these same people transformed by their new clothes.

"Their demeanor changes immediately," she said. "You can see the look on their face, when they put that suit on and they look in the mirror."

Dress for Success is a worldwide charitable organization that helps those who can't afford professional clothes get ready for a job interview. Video Watch women transformed with fashion »

The organization gives those in need a complete business suit -- including shoes, handbags and accessories, and then another outfit once they land a job. Clients must be referred by an agency.

Jacobson greets the four ladies with the Homestead, Florida, Job Corps, who are in her waiting room. A meeting always starts with a handshake.

"Squeeze it! Harder! Harder!" Jacobson tells one of the ladies. "Like that! Don't be afraid to squeeze it. The handshake is the most important thing you can do on a job interview ... because it shows that you are feeling confident, you're secure."

But things in the job market are anything but secure. Because of widespread job cuts and layoffs, Dress for Success is seeing staggering increases in business all over the country.

Business is up at the Miami, Florida, office about 100 percent over 2007. Denver, Colorado's, office has seen increases of 68 percent, and Portland, Oregon, has seen business jump 144 percent.

Ernslyne Verdiu is trying to re-enter the workforce. She's been out of work for several years because of an illness.

Today, Jacobson has found a pinstriped gray pants suit in Verdiu's size and then finds a scarf to complete the look.

Helping her tie the scarf, Jacobson has some more business etiquette to share.

"Immediately when that interviewer sees you, they're making an assessment based on how you dress, how you look, your grooming."

This organization is feeling the economic downturn just like everyone else. In Miami, they've been forced to move into a smaller office. In many cities and states, Dress for Success, has lost government funding.

"There's a greater need, much greater need," Jacobson said. "We just don't have the capacity, we don't have the manpower. We don't have the funds to really meet the demand."

They are forced to rely on donations. CNN went along with Jacobson to the Miami law firm of Panter, Panter & Sampedro, where a handful of business suits were waiting, as well as a donation in the form of a check.

Mitchell Panter is a civil trial attorney.

"If we can help out a young lady that doesn't have the means to purchase nice clothing so that she can go out on an interview and present herself in a professional manner, we can help. We need to help," he said.

Jacobson took the clothes to her car, where she already had a trunk full. Dress for Success accepts only business clothes in good condition. The organization says it has to re-donate about 75 percent of the donations it receives, because the clothes do not meet business standards.

Also, while Jacobson can play designer and even give grooming tips, being a tailor is beyond her role.

"We don't do the tailoring, and usually they can't afford to do the tailoring, so if it fits, they're pretty much walking out with it, and going right on that job interview," she said. "Sometimes the sleeves are too long, and we'll do a little trick with tape."

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Dress for Success Miami has suited more than 20,000 people since 1994. Naomi Ellington was one of those thousands; she got a suit a few years ago. The suit helped her get a job. Today, she returns to Dress for Success as the case manager for the Homestead, Florida, Job Corps.

"They can dress up the outside, so the inside can feel better, too, sometimes," Ellington said. "Sometimes we have to work from the outside in."

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