SANTA ANA, Calif.—Working Wardrobes, a nonprofit organization that helps the needy get jobs in Orange County, California, has opened a new career center in Santa Ana after its previous headquarters burned down in a February fire.
Founder and CEO Jerri Rosen appeared delighted at the Sept. 30 ribbon-cutting ceremony, which was attended by county officials, clients, and well-wishers.
Rosen and Working Wardrobes Board Chair Justin Frame together cut the symbolic ribbon with a large pair of scissors shortly after 9 a.m. to signify the center’s rebirth at 2000 E. McFadden Ave.
“Now we are opening our doors and saying to our community—the entire Southern California community—we’re here to help people get back on their feet and back to work,” Rosen said at the ceremony.
Working Wardrobes helps veterans, homeless, and other underprivileged individuals get jobs by providing professional attire and on-site skills training to help get them back into the workforce.
“More than anything we want to have people feel like they can actually get back on their feet, and provide for themselves and their family,” Rosen said.
She said the organization has continued its mission to help clients throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and despite the fire that destroyed its 22,000-square-foot Irvine headquarters in February.
The blaze wiped out the organization’s donation center, career center, and corporate offices. It caused an estimated $10 million in damage to the building, and more than $2 million in lost contents.
Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do, who also spoke at the ribbon-cutting, said he and Rosen go back 30 years.
Do said that during his first year as a public defender, Rosen “approached us in the public defender’s office and said, ‘Hey, I have this idea. … What if we can help people remake their lives? … We can start with you attorneys.’”
Rosen told him that the attorneys have “suits that you can donate, that can be repurposed,” according to Do.
“In addition to providing working wardrobes—the name—clothing for people to restart their life and be able to be presentable in going to job interviews and remake their professional careers, they provide career assessment, skill training, career development services, job placement, and then re-entry into the workforce,” Do said.
The comprehensive assistance allows people in need to gain “the power” to earn money on their own, he added.
“And I think that’s what we’re doing here. … We are giving people that self-confidence, that sense of identity, and you can’t put a value on that kind of work,” Do said.
Santa Ana City Councilman Vicente Sarmiento said dealing with the fire, followed by COVID-19, was “analogous to the people” that rely on the organization.
“Because those who come to you, those who come to receive support and help, have had a difficult path themselves,” Sarmiento said.
He told Rosen that Working Wardrobes will be better able to show empathy to people because “you’ve actually lived as an organization, having some difficulties, having some different twists and turns that you didn’t expect, but you continue moving on.”
“We’ve had some of the highest cases of COVID—we have four ZIP codes that are the highest in the county,” he said. “So we are especially proud to have you here, because we know so many folks won’t be able to go back to the job that they once had.”
Working Wardrobes will help them “rescale themselves and upskill themselves,” Sarmiento said. “And we know that this is going to be so critically important.”
A Veteran’s Testimonial
Formerly homeless veteran Khang Phi spoke about how Working Wardrobes changed his life.
“My story began with me, homeless, sitting in my car, parked in a 24 Hour Fitness parking lot,” said Khang.
Khang was disappointed with the programs offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs; he felt like he’d been “burned before” and wasted his time. Then he discovered Working Wardrobes.
“They work together with me from the first moment I stepped through the door, and even until now,” Khang said. The center linked him with resources, including financial assistance, housing, career development, and job placement.
“They have this series of working workshops that were created for veterans to improve their ability to find gainful employment. It helped them with new skills and [to] develop that knowledge for the job market,” he said.
Khang said college-level “power courses” taught by volunteers also taught him a great deal—and made him want to “give back” by helping other veterans “like they helped me.”
After assistance from Working Wardrobes, Khang found himself in the same parking lot where he first began—only now his situation was different.
“Fast forward. It was about, I think, a month or so after Working Wardrobe. I’m in the parking lot again, but this time the element of the story is a little bit different. I’m in the process of securing stable housing. I’m parked in front of the office building, waiting for a job interview. I’m in my new suit that was picked out by a wardrobe specialist.
“And with the help of the veteran team, and all the folks that are Working Wardrobe, I was given a chance to rise up, and I took it.”
Khang told the crowd that the clothes he was wearing were “the last suit” given to him by Working Wardrobes. He wears it, he said, as “a symbol of enduring dedication.”
“After today, I’m going to hang the suit up like a superhero hanging up his cape,” Khang said.
“It’s time to move forward. I’m going to shadow box this gift and display it as a treasure for myself, to remember the hardship I’ve endured and how I have risen up against it.
“It will be a beacon in those dark times that I have endured. I shall let it hang up from my workspace and remind me of the success and the perseverance—and to never give up, and to always show compassion to others.”
Every time Rosen hears a success story like Khang’s, she is reminded of the great responsibility that Working Wardrobes has to the needy in California.
“We’ve all experienced that at some time in our lives, a sense of just being lost because we didn’t have that identity that a job brings us, the dignity that a job brings us,” Rosen said.
“And so for us to be able to offer that as graciously and as gratefully as we can, I’ll never ever ever get tired of that.”
Working Wardrobes has helped more than 105,000 people since it began in 1990, according to its website.