Before you read this, consider it’s pretty clear that this was arson.
In late February, Working Wardrobes founder Jerri Rosen sounded optimistic.
In theory, she had little reason for this.
Her 30-year-old nonprofit had just been kneecapped by a fire, losing thousands of pieces of donated business attire and accessories along with their headquarters and warehouse. And, in an unrelated move, soon after the fire the organization’s former controller was charged with one felony count of grand theft by embezzlement.
Even so, Rosen noted, the wider nonprofit community was stepping in to help. Working Wardrobes was offered some temporary office space. Clothing donations were pouring in as were offers to replenish lost supplies. And, Rosen said, she was closing in on a new location.
Then came March.
And as the county and the country slipped into shutdown mode to stem the spread of coronavirus, Working Wardrobes was again scrambling toward recovery.
Now, as restrictions are lifting and much of the world adjusts to social distancing, Working Wardrobes is ready to reopen.
Rosen said this month that she has signed two new leases, each for three years. One is for space that will house a new donation center, in Irvine, that is expected to open June 6. The other is for a career success center in Santa Ana, where workshops and other back-to-work services can resume on July 6. The four thrift stores that provide income to support Working Wardrobes also are expected to be back in business in July.
“It all came down at the same time. But holy cow, it took a long time to get there,” Rosen said of the new locations.
“I couldn’t get everything under one roof. But I’m very excited.”
‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ but with clothes
The fire struck early in the morning on Feb. 2, a Sunday. Within hours, nothing but the walls remained. Laptops, office equipment, a few million bucks worth of clothing — all was gone.
What wasn’t gone was the need felt by victims of domestic violence, struggling military veterans, recovering addicts and others who turn to Working Wardrobes to get jobs and rebuild their lives.
Working Wardrobes, which grew from a 1990 event called “Day of Self Esteem” put on by Rosen and five friends to help battered women, was already accustomed to change.
Over the years, the nonprofit has moved several times as it grew to add services such as career coaching, resume workshops, job search assistance, and interview skills. It’s also expanded its reach, holding Cinderella events to provide economically challenged high school girls with formal dresses that help them sparkle at their proms. And over the years it has set up a stable revenue source to cover some expenses, the Hanger resale shops. There are two boutiques, in Tustin and Laguna Niguel, and two outlets, in Costa Mesa and Garden Grove.
When the fire hit, fire officials couldn’t conduct an investigation, saying the Working Wardrobes site (then on Kettering Street in Irvine) was too unstable to safely enter and evaluate, Rosen said.
But such is the local respect for the organization that even on the morning of the fire, other nonprofits were taking steps to help Working Wardrobes.
Hours after she got a text about the fire, Goodwill of Orange County’s Nicole Suydam was on the phone with Rosen, offering room at Goodwill’s Tustin location (the Tierney Center for Veteran Services) for Working Wardrobes staff who work with ex-service members to use as a temporary home. Rosen said her phone was “blowing up” with other offers from other groups.
Suydam quickly followed up with space at a much larger Goodwill building in Santa Ana where other employees could set up and where Working Wardrobes clients could come in to select outfits. Goodwill workers brought in truckloads of supplies, located computers and helped with office WiFi.
“Their mission is important to us,” said Suydam, president and CEO of Goodwill of Orange County. “We have to help them …
“People love who they are and what they do.”
Soon, Habitat for Humanity of Orange County sent over a crew to build dressing rooms. Some clothing racks and other fixtures came from an out-of-business Forever 21 store.
And Benjamin Ragos, age 9, set up a lemonade stand outside his Huntington Beach home, which he used to raise $165.70 for Working Wardrobes. That money bought a rolling clothes rack.
“It’s overwhelming how great the community has been in rallying to help us serve our clients,” Ashley Vlcan, director of client services for Working Wardrobes, said on Feb. 20.
The Goodwill site was, in theory, a temporary home to be used until the end of March. And that month, was when Rosen expected to find a permanent home.
Instead, on March 19, the state of California issued a stay-at-home order related to coronavirus. That essentially shut all non-essential businesses.
Working Wardrobes had to pivot again.
Shut down, ramp up
Unable to continue offering much of its services, and with staff now working from home, Working Wardrobes turned to the same virtual reality as millions of others. In April, it launched a Rebuilding Careers initiative that included a series of virtual workshops taught by a team of volunteer coaches from various fields.
Free to the public, the twice-weekly workshops are open to Working Wardrobes clients and anyone furloughed or laid off because of the pandemic or looking to sharpen their skills while at home. Some of the sessions cover doing job interviews online or how to navigate a virtual job fair. People can register at workingwardrobes.org/rebuilding-careers/.
While pleased with how well Rebuilding Careers has gone, Rosen is eager to reopen Working Wardrobes — under safety protocols, such as sanitizing clothes that are tried on but not selected by clients at the career center or customers at the resale stores.
A Paycheck Protection Program loan helped to bring back some staff, now at 24 and expected to grow to 40, including a few new hires, when everything is up and running, Rosen said.
“It’s just been incredible to see this whole process.”
Source: Orange County Register