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Renata Singer and Marion Webster Fitted for Work
07 March 2011
\"Recognition that you count – that you make a difference – boosts anyone's confidence.\"
Ten years ago Renata Singer arrived in New York with her husband, the philosopher Peter Singer, who was taking up a University position. She had presumed it would be hard to make friends and easy to get a job.
\"It was the opposite. I wasn't keen to get work because with most jobs you only get two weeks' holiday a year and it was not going to be enough to get back to Australia to visit the children.
\"Before long a friend asked if I'd like to do a newsletter for the Bottomless Closet, a volunteer organisation.
\"It sounded to me like a group set up to oppress gay people, but it's actually a transition to work program, helping economically disadvantaged women in the process of finding employment. I got the newsletter job and then began working with the group.
\"I remember the first client I worked with. She was statuesque and we had put together a wardrobe for her. She was dressed in a red suit and looking at herself in the mirror. Her first comment was: 'You know, I could be the bank manager.' I was sucked in from there.
\"For a moment – no matter how brief or long – we had made a difference to her. She saw herself as something else. She saw the potential.\"
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Renata Singer has a background in education and community work. According to long-time friend, Marion Webster, cofounder of Fitted for Work and former founding Executive Director of Philanthropy Australia, \"Renata has a strong sense of social justice and a belief in diversity and women's issues.
\"We met working together more than 25 years ago in a Melbourne based migration service. It was an intense and difficult time for the service and we had a close working relationship, which became a friendship. We also had children who grew up together.\"
Of course, Marion visited Renata in New York and was introduced to the work of Bottomless Closet... \"Because one of Marion's great abilities, is she is fantastic on clothes and look, so I knew she would really get it,\" says Renata.
The two women hatched a plan. According to Renata, there are many similar models (70 known as Dress for Success) around the world, including several in New Zealand.
\"Marion and I spoke with friends. We all put money in, drew up a proposal and a plan, held a public meeting in Melbourne to which we invited everyone we could think of - trusts, foundations, more friends and contacts - and in 2005 launched Fitted for Work.\"
The group's transition to work program has had growing success. Agencies, such as Centrelink, refer clients who are 'interview ready'. The program then fits them out physically, emotionally and with the knowledge base to take them into their first interview - or their first job interview in a very long time.
\"It's all about creating confidence, breaking down fear of failure, the fear of not coping and not knowing what to do or what is expected or what they should look like for the interview... the work place,\" says Renata.
\"Clients arrive and are often surprised by how beautiful the place is. That's important, because some already feel embarrassed, and with that often comes aggression, about getting free clothes.
\"It's almost magical, the feeling, when volunteers and clients work together. When people undress it strips away barriers, breaks down guards. The volunteers (we are all volunteers working at Fitted) and clients find they share the same hopes and dreams: that there is more in common than not.
\"The work here fulfils a need for clients and volunteers alike and that is important for creating a successful dynamic.\"
Recent global events have had an impact. Renata has noticed an increase in women coming through the doors. The previously buoyant employment market, which also allowed for marginally employable women to secure work, has long gone.
\"Women are losing their positions, hours are being cut. In this new climate we have to adapt. Getting employment for women who have little or no experience in the job market is going to be very difficult.
\"It's about upkeep of spirits, buddying clients with businesses and mentors. It's about keeping in contact and checking on our clients' well-being, getting clients work experience and voluntary work, reskilling, upskilling and training.\"
For both Marion and Renata, the ripple effect of the service's work has them in awe. They have seen a community of women supporting women, regardless of demographics or perceived differences, grow and prosper. Many of the volunteers are also finding work as they help their clients secure the same. In 2007 the Westpac Foundation supplied a grant to develop a social enterprise – a retro/vintage shop where clients can be trained in retail and which will also make money.
\"In a contracting market for grants from all angles, it is important to develop other sources of funding, to not be too dependent on any one source. However you view it, securing the backing of large corporates – of anyone for that matter – has a double benefit. Firstly, it allows the program to continue for those who need it, and secondly, it shows us and our clients that people have faith in them and us. It actually boosts our confidence. It makes us feel honoured,\" say Renata and Marion.
Volunteers and clients – both – get their needs met at Fitted for Work.
Team work is important. Being driven by one ego is limiting.
Not for profits are about the good of the organization and clients and not about any one individual.
If you don't ask, you won't know.
Beneficial symbiosis is important for a working dynamic.
\"When the service (Fitted for Work) receives recognition through funding, we feel honoured... \"