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YWCA turns its clothing bank from plain a room into boutique atmosphere

For its new building, at 930 N. Monroe, the YWCA has intentionally designed its Our Sisters Closet clothing bank to look like a small clothing boutique.

Our Sisters Closet

New "Our Sisters Closet" at new YWCA building

Several clothing racks display designer outfits, shoes and other accessories.  Staff are ready to help women who come to find suitable clothes for a job interview.

Unlike women entering a retail boutique, however, the women who walk through the doors have no money to pay for the clothes they choose.

“The women who come here are from different walks of life,” said Julie Ernest, who has been managing Our Sister’s Closet for almost three years. “Some come from low-income families, trying to re-enter the work force.  Others come from domestic violence situations. There are also those who just want to get their lives back together.” 

Dependent on community donations, Our Sister’s Closet gives free professional clothing and personal hygiene supplies to women in need who want something appropriate to wear for a job interview or in a work environment.

It is one of many services offered by the YWCA out of its commitment to “eliminate racism, empower women, and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all” as their mission statement says.
What began as a volunteer opportunity at Our Sister’s Closet has turned into a rewarding job for Julie. 
“I had the time to give of my service and felt a motivation to find a way to make our community a better and safer place to be,” she said.

While Julie was serving as a volunteer, the former manager was hired elsewhere.  When Julie was asked if she wanted the manager position, she said she did.

“I love the grassroots nature of Our Sister’s Closet.  The YWCA offers a beautiful place for a clothing bank and works one-on-one with women. It is wonderful to give women a sense of self worth.”

Julie credits her values of service to her parents.

“We were fortunate that we had a lot and they always gave to others, too,” she said. 

“Service to other people is important for good mental health—for both the giver and receiver. There is something special in knowing that you are loved.  It can be hard for some of these women to believe that there is good out there,” Julie said.  “Sometimes it is hard to see.”

Helping women see themselves in a positive light regardless of their challenges helps her live out her service values.

“How I help these women is where that spiritual value comes alive, in helping them see there are good people out there who are there for them,” she said.

Julie recalls a woman who arrived looking for clothes to wear on a job interview in the restaurant industry.

“I gave her some advice on what to choose,” she said. “The woman felt so good about the way she looked and that confidence carried over in her attitude.  She was dressed for the job and was hired right away.” 

Those stories make her enthusiastic about what she does.  She is also moved by how much sharing there is among women in the community.

“Everyone has the capacity to share,” she said. “It is our personal responsibility to do so. When women come here to give their clothes to our center, they are helping another woman build her self esteem.”
Julie said that on many occasions she will run into some of the women she has helped, and they thank her for everything she has done for them.

“I am sometimes surprised that they remember me, but they are always so grateful for the time we gave them.  We made a difference to them.”

The women are referred to Our Sister’s Closet by local service organizations or Work Source.  They make an appointment to come and meet with Julie or another Our Sister’s Closet worker and discuss their needs.  On the average, they serve about 100 women a month, with higher turnouts in the winter, averaging about 1,500 a year. After meeting with staff, the women can select an outfit from Our Sister’s Closet.  They can also obtain shoes, undergarments and hygiene products.

Our Sister’s Closet is constantly busy, as people drop off donations or come in for an evaluation. 

Julie said that while the program serves women in the community by providing them with professional clothes, they also offer opportunities for on-the-job training by working at the Closet a few hours a day.

Most of the women who work there come from social-service programs such as Career Path Services, which provides job training and life skills.  Many are single mothers who want to gain retail experience. There are also work-study students from local universities and volunteers.

Our Sister’s Closet is part of the YWCA’s Opportunity Center, which manages a computer lab and offers free classes on how to create a resume or reach out to potential employers online.   Its mission is job readiness and computer skills.  The clothing is a part of that job readiness.

“There are women who don’t know how to use the internet for job searches or how to use spell check for their resumes,” Julie said. “Many of them have not finished high school. This is an opportunity for them to learn these skills free.   Afterwards, they can stop by Our Sister’s Closet to choose an outfit for their interview.” 

Since working at Our Sister’s Closet, she has learned about many community support networks for women in need. The program works with organizations such as Union Gospel Mission, Lutheran Community Services, Hope House, and Our Place to help women find resources to put their lives together.

“What you wear counts.” she said. “I know I’m not going to solve all of the women’s problems, but if I can help them feel good about how they look, then I’m doing my part. The goal for them is to keep on trying.”
The Opportunity Center programs are on the second floor of the new YMCA/YWCA building.  They are open five days a week or by appointment.

Our Sister’s Closet welcomes donations of women’s professional clothes that need no repair—especially sizes 14 and up—clean undergarments, shoes, and toiletries.

For information, call 326-1190.