Amber Mills knows all about the value of a good first impression. She made sure she made one when the interviewed last year for a job as a medical-records file clerk at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center. With the help of Dress for Success Hartford — a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women overcome obstacles to find employment and advance their careers — she looked professional and felt confident.
She got the job.
And with that job she began to turn her life around. Before that, the mother of three was in a tough situation that found her jobless and living out of her car or in cheap motels.
"I went through some domestic issues," she says. "Life threw me a couple of curves, and I had to pick up the pieces."
She put those pieces together in fast order. Career training with the Urban League of Greater Hartford led to a job interview at St. Francis. Before that interview, however, Mills was referred to Dress for Success, which believes in the power of a good suit.
"Once I tried a few of the outfits on, I got excited because I looked pretty good," she says, remembering her first shopping experience with Dress for Success. "I felt different. I felt empowered. I felt good. It helped me to feel confident in the interview to portray the skills I already had."
That's precisely the purpose of Dress for Success. On Monday, the Hartford organization is celebrating its 10th year of providing business attire and career-development services to local women in need with a fashion show and fundraiser at Hartford Stage. (Mills, the organization's 2,000th client, will be among the success stories modeling in the show.) To date, Dress for Success has helped more than 2,400 area women find their way toward economic independence.
It starts with the suit, says Sara Avatapalli, executive director of Dress for Success. At the organization's downtown office, clients are paired with personal shoppers to select professional business attire and accessories for that all-important job interview. The outfits are donated and are free to the client, who can receive up to a week's worth of clothing. But the help doesn't stop at just the suit. The organization also offers a professional women's support group and career coaching with volunteer mentors to make sure clients not only keep their jobs but advance in the workplace and in their personal lives.
Mills gives a lot of credit to her coach, Linda Taylor, for helping keep her on track. Five months after landing the job at St. Francis, Mills was in her own apartment, and her life was back on track.
"I got on my feet again. Things are looking up. Things are not the same as last year, I can tell you that much."
On Monday, when she participates in the fashion show, Mills says she will be thinking about that first suit and her effort to change her circumstances.
"No one wants to be homeless. How do you go from having money to not having it? That's rough," the 29-year-old Hartford resident says. "I had to be determined. I had to be determined for my children. It's not even about me."
That determination — boosted by the help of Dress for Success — is something very real for Mills. She has plenty of goals on her list and plenty of climbing to do, she says.
"I'll keep going. Maybe I'll be a medical assistant and keep moving up from there until I have M.D. behind my name."
Dress for Success Hartford's Third Annual Capital Catwalk fashion show and fundraiser takes place Monday from 6 to 9 p.m. at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Tickets, at $75, are available at the door. Proceeds go directly to the programs that provide local women the tools and support they need to enter the work force. For more information about Dress for Success Hartford, visit www.dressforsuccess.org/hartford.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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