Struggling financially after a divorce, single mom Margot Chaffee pursued a teaching degree and worked nights to support her family. But she worried when she realized she couldn't afford a professional wardrobe for upcoming job interviews.
Then Chaffee met Jeannette Kendall, a former clothing designer and consultant who gave her a free cosmetic makeover, several business outfits and a new lease on life.
Realizing that many women who most needed her services couldn't afford them, Kendall, 49, started Success in Styles(SIS), a free fashion-consultant service for disheartened, low-income women in 2001. Located in a small office building in Ellicott City, Md. (pop. 56,397), the 300-square-foot showroom looks like an upscale fashion boutique, not a thrift shop.
"We treat them with dignity and compassion, and dote on them, so the women walk out of here looking professional and feeling confident," Kendall says.
"I feel so blessed to have found Jeannette," says Chaffee, 50, who was hired as a first-grade teacher at Laurel (Md.) Elementary School after SIS outfitted her in a suit. "Her organization doesn't give people handouts, it gives them the tools to better themselves." And Chaffee is just one of hundreds of clients that Kendall has helped get back on their feet.
"I was destitute," recalls Antonio Fraser, of Windsor Mill, Md., who had just been released from prison in 2006. "They treated me real nice, and that has made all the difference."
When Fraser walked into SIS's boutique, a trained volunteer gave her a free personal fashion and makeup consultation, and helped her select several flattering outfits and accessories. Fraser also received interview etiquette advice, makeup and a coupon for a free hairstyle.
"It exceeded my expectations," says Fraser, 34, who now works as a licensed practical nurse. "Not only did I get clothes for my interviews, I got a uniform for my nursing jobs."
Highly persuasive and resourceful, Kendall finds ways to help clients who need more than apparel.
She once worked with a woman whose reluctant smile displayed no front top or bottom teeth. "I knew that no suit in the world would get her a job," says Kendall, who found a dentist who agreed to do the work for free. Another woman was losing her hair and couldn't afford a wig. "She was so embarrassed, she had stopped leaving her house," says Kendall, who found an SIS board member who donated three wigs. "It just transformed her."
SIS "assures the women that they are capable as well as beautiful," says Anita Blake, who works with single parents and displaced homemakers at Howard Community College in nearby Columbia, Md. Only the highest-quality, newest-looking donated clothing, shoes, purses and jewelry make it into the SIS showroom; others are passed on to Goodwill, the Salvation Army or PlanetAid, a nonprofit organization that sends clothing to developing countries.
A legion of volunteers assists Kendall, the store's only full-time employee and paid staffer, whose modest income and operating budget come from grants, fundraisers and contributions from local businesses. Kendall's nine children, ages 4 to 22, and husband Paul, an attorney, help sort clothing.
Kendall finds that for all the hours she devotes to her clients, she is more than rewarded by their success and gratitude. "One woman arrived at our door crying," she recalls. "She later wrote, 'I was late, disheveled and angry at the world. But I found my angels standing at the door. I felt God's love. And that's why I am so grateful for what you have given me.'"
"These women are so appreciative," Kendall adds. "I just want to help them get meaningful work and reclaim their dignity."