A New Way To Pay It Forward

“You never know where life will take you,” said Tanya Vokes, CEO of Dress for Success Pittsburgh. That statement especially rings true for women, who have outpaced men in leaving the workforce due to childcare needs and retirement during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report by Gallup.

Organizations such as Dress for Success are working to bridge that gap. Dress for Success has a mission to empower women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and career development resources. However, the organization has faced its own challenges due to the pandemic, as it typically delivered services in person.

Drive-Thru Cookie Table, May 2021. Nadine Photography.

Getting creative with resources

Annaliese Kaucic, a Mt. Lebanon resident, interned for Dress for Success’s Pittsburgh branch, and for the past two years has volunteered to assist with marketing, outreach and the annual fundraising committee. She noted that the organization had to pivot its activities for safety, yet the goal has remained clear. “As a female, it’s important to support other women to grow in their careers and confidence levels, and pay it forward.”

Calynn Abdullah, Bethel Park resident and communications and events manager for Dress for Success Pittsburgh, described the creative problem-solving and quick action necessary to shift the organization’s services toward digital career services and contactless methods of receiving and providing clothing donations. “We had boutiques where people could practice for job interviews, and get one-on-one guidance with volunteers before the pandemic,” said Abdullah. To continue delivering services online, they reached out to interns for support. “We took on 11 interns in 2020 for 11 weeks for communications and client relations,” she said. The interns also built a new website, dfspghvirtual.org, which features interview tips, job listings, childcare resources, diversity in the workplace information, clothing guides, a self-care section and more.

“We also had to find new ways to fundraise, quickly,” said Abdullah. Although the outcomes were uncertain initially, new virtual fundraisers were a success, and raised approximately $10,000 each, according to Abdullah, who noted, “We didn’t even think we’d get a couple hundred.” The Black and Gold Cookie Table Drive Thru event at Hartwood Acres last May was also a new fundraising initiative designed with social distancing in mind, selling admission tickets per vehicle. “It encourages people to come together as a family and get out to do something different aside from going to the grocery store,” said Abdullah. This year’s event is May 14 at Hartwood Acres. (Visit the ticketing website.)

Inside Dress for Success Pittsburgh’s Washington Branch at 82 West South Street. Photo by Nadine Photography.

Benefits of giving

Giving back doesn’t just benefit the recipient of the services. According to a 2020 study by the Journal for Happiness as reported by the Washington Post, people who volunteer reported greater satisfaction with their lives and better mental health compared to those who don’t volunteer. Kaucic, Abdullah, and Vokes are proof of that.

Kaucic volunteers with Dress for Success to stay connected with the community after her social life began to dwindle when she started her own business.

After her 2008 college graduation, Abdullah found it difficult to find a job and began volunteering for another organization, where she met Vokes, who encouraged her to apply for a position at Dress for Success. “I struggled finding my way, and someone took a chance on me. … Now I want to help women in similar situations,” Abdullah said.

Vokes has a background in corporate HR and led a program that enabled employees to volunteer for a new organizations, such as Dress for Success, each month on company time. The first-generation college student soon left her corporate job to work at Dress for Success, later becoming its CEO.

And those 11 interns? Many who lost their previously scheduled internships due to the pandemic found new opportunities at Dress for Success Pittsburgh.

“Leadership is about what we can do for women and girls coming up behind us,” said Vokes. “Clothing is the basic foundation [of the Dress for Success organization], but the confidence piece is arguably more important. Feeling strong and confident goes a long way in how we present ourselves.”

And as Kaucic puts it, “Helping somebody else is a great thing to do.”

How to get involved

During Dress for Success Pittsburgh’s first year, the organization served 69 clients, and over the last 15 years has provided services to more than 30,000 women across Southwestern Pennsylvania, said Abdullah.

Here’s how you can get involved:

  • Through financial donations and the Monthly Giving Club, which supports services as well as the purchase of items not often donated, such as medical scrubs and nonskid shoes
  • Participation in events such as Fill-A-Bag (FAB) Sales (ongoing), Black & Gold Cookie Table Drive-Thru Fundraiser (May)
  • In-kind donations through contactless drop-off appointments
  • Volunteer opportunities

Visit their website for more information.

Career advice from Tanya Vokes, CEO of Dress for Success Pittsburgh

Looking to get back into the workforce or further your current career? Here are some tips.

  • Stay well-networked, even while out of the workforce, through online resources to refresh your skills, volunteerism, and posting articles on LinkedIn to remind people of your expertise.
  • Interviews aren’t one way—remember to interview the interviewer as well to determine if a job is the right fit for you.
  • Give yourself a break. Nobody’s going to get everything exactly right.

Celebrate Women’s History Month in March with Dress for Success Pittsburgh! You can participate in Your Hour, Her Power, where you donate an hour of your pay to help provide local women with career readiness tools and support, or you can host an Empowerment Celebration. Click here to learn more.