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It’s ironic that nearly 25 years ago, “The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act” (a.k.a. “The Welfare Reform Act”) passed, making it harder for single moms and other disadvantaged women to both find opportunities for gainful employment or gain full responsibility for their futures with the law’s truncation of the time limit on federal welfare benefits. The deck stacked against these women in the hands they were dealt included a lack of appropriate interview clothing and self-confidence to present themselves professionally in make-or-break interviews and networking opportunities.
This irony was not lost on the founders of Bottomless Closet, who set forth a plan of action to pull together the components of an organization not only providing thousands of New York Area job seekers a clean, professional wardrobe, but also all the non-tangible things that made a difference between unmitigated uncertainty and self-sufficiency. By 1999, founders Sheila Lambert, Reva Wurtzburger, Cynthia Gaston, Jeanne Sigler, Elizabeth Tighe and current board member Carolyn Huggins were at last able to open the doors for a welcoming, uplifting place where these job seekers could access the tools and resources as well as the suits and accessories required to move forward.
“We know that women lose jobs since they are moms and need flexible schedules that jobs in many fields have not historically offered,” says Bottomless Closet executive director Melissa Norden. “Women also get paid less than men, and Women of Color even less. Last year, COVID ended up putting an even greater spotlight on issues that were already there. This is why it is so important for us to give them what matters most—the ability to advocate for themselves so that they can get and keep their jobs and raise their families, too. We are ardent supporters of raising the minimum wage and keeping the fight going on equal pay for equal work.”
Since Bottomless Closet’s grassroots beginnings in 1999, it has grown into a fully professionally run organization. To date, it has served more than 46,000 women in need, amassed nearly 200 dedicated volunteers and roughly 200 referral partners, and staged thousands of workshops.
“There is no better feeling than the ability to pay your good fortune, knowledge and experience forward to someone who hasn’t had the network of support including family, friends and significant others that help them become successful,” says Norden, who joined the organization after a 13-year run as a leading ASPCA (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) executive and serving as counsel to Madison Square Garden, collaborating with the management of its sports teams (New York Knicks, New York Rangers and the New York Liberty) to make the efforts of the Madison Square Garden Cheering for Children Foundation successful.
“Most of our volunteers are either retired from corporate America and/or moms who want to see other women succeed in the way they did or wished that they had,” Norden explains. “The women who have successfully gone through our program feel empowered and hold their heads high. They learn how to deal with conflict on the job, ask for a promotion or a raise, and sharpen their problem-solving skills. They tackle their credit, build savings, learn to network, better their own well-being and make lifestyle changes that all help to get them on the path to self-sufficiency.”
Norden points out that before the pandemic, Bottomless Closet was growing its client numbers at over 20% a year. Even with the challenges the pandemic posed, she says the organization has thrived as a data driven organization that is continuously responsive to the clients’ needs in all areas of programming through the processes of job seeking, interview and transition along the way to full-time employment.
When they have a job interview scheduled, but lack the tools to prepare for the interview, disadvantaged women are referred to Bottomless Closet from over 150 referral partner organizations, including the CUNY City College System, HELP USA and Workforce 1. “In our office, our volunteer Career Coaches outfit them for their interviews in our boutique, work on their resumes and mock interview skills, most importantly, they build their confidence so that they feel empowered to succeed. However, the process continues from there. After they go on their interviews, if they get the job, they get additional clothing to start their work wardrobe and schedule an appointment with a Career Coach to set them up for early success in their new career. Whether they get the job or not, we encourage them to participate in our workshop series, covering Financial Management, Professional Development and Personal Enrichment programming”, Norden details.
This fall, Bottomless Closet launched technology programming that will bring clients up to speed on everything they need to be competitive. According to Norden, the robust and essential Financial Management workshop series, taught entirely by volunteer financial professionals, gets their clients fully prepared to manage their earnings, so that they are able to meet their personal and family budget goals. This starts with the organization buying clients their credit reports, taking the intimidation factors out of the banking system and showing them how open accounts and invest. “Our workshop series goes from Intro to Banking to How to Buy Your First Home and everything in between,” she affirms.
The referral partners, meanwhile, enhance Bottomless Closet’s efforts with dedicated services for some clients with disabilities and other special needs. “For example, VISIONS serves visually impaired women”, she explains. “Our referral partners are job developers. They are in the best position to decide if we can help in the process.”
Although Bottomless Closet is not expanding to other U.S. cities, their multi-faceted approach to bringing more women into the workforce and equipping them to attain living wages can stand as a model for other organizations and consortiums of organizations with similar goals. Norden points out that while the need and their client base continues to grow throughout New York City’s five boroughs, there are other organizations elsewhere ramping up their efforts to not only give women in need a job but also full agency of their lives as a whole, pointing to the Alliance for Career Development Network (ACDN), which has several member organizations around the country that does similar work.
For more information or to donate to Bottomless Closet, please visit http://www.bottomlesscloset.