Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
When Shirley (Furukawa) Grossi was looking for something different to do besides working in insurance sales and marketing, she started volunteering with various organizations. In 2009, she began volunteering at the Laniäkea YWCA in Honolulu, helping wherever manpower — make that, woman-power — was needed, until she found her niche in a YWCA of O‘ahu program called Dress for Success.
Grossi’s passion for fashion, shopping and community service came together in 2012 when the YWCA hired her to run its Dress for Success suiting program at the Laniäkea YWCA. Dress for Success is an international program headquartered in New York City. It assists women in transition who have been referred to the program by a homeless or domestic violence shelter, a substance abuse treatment program, a job-training welfare program, even a prison.
“Without a job, how can you afford a suit? But without a suit, how can you get a job?” is the Dress for Success mantra. Some women served by DFS come to the program with only the clothes on their backs — and leave with a professional outfit that they can wear to a job interview.
“I love the mission,” Grossi says of DFS. According to its website, DFS’ mission is to “promote the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, a network of support and career development tools to help women thrive in work and in life.” More than just a clothing donation program, DFS has established job-readiness and career development programs in more than 140 cities in 19 countries since its start in 1997. The YWCA of O‘ahu became Hawai‘i’s only DFS affiliate in 2003, with the program run out of the Laniäkea YWCA.
The DFS suiting program now has approximately 50 volunteers whom Grossi screens, orients and schedules. Volunteers sort donations of clothing, shoes, handbags, accessories, cosmetics and toiletries. Items deemed suitable for the program are taken to the Dress for Success Boutique, where volunteers serve as personal shoppers by helping to select a complete outfit for clients who are scheduled for a job interview. Clients hired as a result of their interview are invited to return to the DFS boutique for two additional outfits with the goal of finding mix-and-match pieces to make up a week’s wardrobe. The boutique is not open to the public — only DFS clients may “shop” there.
Items not used for suitings can be purchased by the public at DFS Benefit Sales, which are usually held on the last Wednesday and Thursday of each month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Laniäkea YWCA lobby on Richards Street.
Women flock to the monthly sales to try on and buy blouses, skirts, pants and shoes for $5; dresses, jackets and two-piece outfits for $10 and suit sets for $20. Accessories such as belts, scarves and costume jewelry and handbags are priced separately. Occasional high-end designer items on a “boutique” rack are individually priced, but are still much lower than retail prices. DFS volunteers spend their time hanging the clothes on hangers, organizing them on racks for the monthly sale by size and type, assisting in dressing rooms and serving as cashiers.
Proceeds from the monthly DFS Benefit Sales support all of its programs, which are headed by Make Difference=Shirley GrossiKehaulani Coleman, the YWCA of O‘ahu’s director of Economic Development Programs. The Going Places Network is a program for unemployed and underemployed women and focuses on job-readiness, job placement and retention. Going Places provides nine weekly training sessions, individualized career coaching by professional women, and resources for skill building and job-searching. Last year, DFS Honolulu was awarded the Compass Award by Dress for Success Worldwide for having the highest employment and retention rates of all 60 Going Places Network programs in the United States.
DFS’ Professional Women’s Support Group is a career development program that meets monthly at the YWCA to network. Experts address topics such as communication skills, financial planning and stress management. Besides Coleman and Grossi, the YWCA has two other employees to run the DFS programs.
Grossi, who also serves as Coleman’s administrative assistant, said the most gratifying aspect of her job is witnessing the inner transformation of clients who are suited. Their confidence level seems to rise the instant they see themselves in the mirror, looking professional and job-ready. The volunteers enhance the clients’ self-esteem with their attention, praise and encouragement.
One client’s gratitude is posted on the DFS website: “Dress for success was amazing! It was like walking into a large, friendly, women’s clothing store with beautiful displays and racks and racks of clothing organized by size and color. Handbags, shoes, coats, and dressings rooms all organized in sections, even a jewelry case display. Not only did I get to pick out nine pieces of clothing to my liking, I also got a pair of earrings and shoes, a handbag, a scarf, and even some cosmetics. Mary Jane patiently assisted me with choosing, sizing, and matching up outfits . . . it was like having a personal shopping coach. She encouraged and helped me to explore outside my comfort zone with using more color than I am used to. She is awesome. It was a very inspiring and uplifting experience I will always remember. I felt so happy walking out of there. I’m sure I smiled for the entire rest of the day. It really helped me to make it through my first three days of work with much comfort and confidence . . . ”
Besides organizing the monthly DFS sales, Grossi compiles program statistics. For example, she reported that DFS volunteers donated a total of 2,824 hours to the suiting program in 2014 and provided over 5,000 outfits.
DFS relies on donations from the community, income from Benefit Sales, and support from DFS Worldwide and the YWCA. While DFS clients range from size 0 to 34, DFS is especially in need of plus-sized clothing (especially pants, tops and cardigans), shoes size 8 and larger, unused lingerie and cosmetics and handbags. Donations can be dropped off at the front desk of the Laniäkea YWCA at 1040 Richards St.
In the process of helping women in transition, Grossi herself underwent a career transformation.
After graduating from Lahainaluna High School, the Maui sansei had attended the University of Hawai‘i and graduated from Cannon’s School of Business. She immediately began working in the insurance industry, where she spent the next 30 years of her life.
Grossi now spends her free time traveling the world, meeting new people and golfing with friends and her husband Michael in places like Ireland and Scotland.
Comparing her two careers, she said, “The goal of finding out what’s needed and fulfilling that need is basically the same. . . . The mission and who we assist are what I believe in.”
For a schedule of upcoming DFS Benefit Sales, check the YWCA of O‘ahu website at https://ywca-oahu.squarespace.com/benefit-sale. For more information about DFS programs, call the Honolulu DFS office at (808) 695-2603, email email@example.com, or visit the website at https://www.dressforsuccess.org.
Lorraine Wong is a paralegal for a Honolulu law firm. She is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer and volunteers with Dress for Success.