Back to Work Boutique gets women dressed for the job

YWCA hosts store aimed at providing low-income women with clothes for work

At the Back to Work Boutique, volunteers like Greta Huber, shown here to the left of YWCA operations manager Janet Marino, help clients pick out free professional clothes to wear to job interviews and their first few weeks on the job.


When asked why the YWCA Bellingham’s Back to Work Boutique is a needed service for Whatcom County women, operations manager Janet Marino responded with a “no duh” expression.

“There is a large number of low-income people living below the poverty line in Whatcom County,” she said matter-of-factly. “It seems to speak for itself.”

The boutique, located in the substratum of the YWCA’s historic building on N. State Street, offers free professional and work-appropriate clothing to low-income women who are job hunting or starting a new career.

The Back to Work Boutique and other local job training and employment services are aiding low-income women find and keep jobs in a county where a high level of women and single mothers live below the poverty line.

In Whatcom County, 50.8 percent of single mothers and 15.3 percent of women live below the poverty line, according to 2005 U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Both of those percentages are the highest of six contiguous counties in Western Washington, including Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, King, Pierce and Thurston counties, and are also higher than Washington State figures (see sidebar).

For anyone looking for a job, first impressions are everything. For these women, simply affording a suit jacket or presenting an organized resume at a job interview is a serious challenge, and services like the Back to Work Boutique are invaluable. But many women are having a hard time finding such services.

The boutique, which started in 1998, serves about 40 to 60 women a month. They typically have low incomes and are unemployed or changing careers — oftentimes from a service job to a professional one. Many of the women are single mothers who tend to put their children’s needs first. Some have left their previous living situations and clothes behind because of a divorce or another uprooting situation.

In addition to providing them with work attire, the purpose of the boutique is to provide the women with the confidence needed to do well in a job interview or work environment.


First impressions

While most people don’t believe that clothes make the woman, the reality is that they can — along with a few interviewing skills — make the woman appear more hireable.

At the Back to Work Boutique, donated blouses, skirts, slacks and skirts are folded neatly on shelves or hung from well-spaced racks. Strands of glass-beaded necklaces and ear bobbles, boxes of lipstick and eye shadow, are displayed atop cabinets, and a retro salon chair sits on a swivel in front of a large, round mirror.

This is not Banana Republic. This is not even J.C. Penney. Some of the clothes look dated and the concrete floors and exposed ceiling pipes in what used to be the building’s pool locker room are a far stretch from the polished veneer of mall shops. But the boutique is still comfortable and inviting, with plush cushions dressing up threadbare chairs and a gold brocade curtain covering the fitting room.

Appropriate work clothing can be expensive, Marino said. Even buying four professional outfits from a thrift store can run about $100, which is a significant expense for women who are unemployed or have low incomes.

A recent boutique client, Brandi (who wished not to disclose her last name), found two floor-length skirts, a pink knit sweater, a blouse and a dress for her part-time job as a leasing agent at an apartment complex.

After recently returning to her job from maternity leave, Brandi’s employer cut her hours in half for budget reasons. The well-spoken and affable 25-year-old single mother of four claimed unemployment (which provided her with a “whopping $61 a week,” she said) and was referred to the Back to Work Boutique after attending an unemployment orientation at WorkSource.

“I’m just barely making it, and I thought it would be nice to have something to wear to work,” Brandi said.

The new garments mean Brandi doesn’t have to wear the same outfit three days in a row and wash her clothes every night while she cares for her kids, she said. The boutique enabled her to wear professional clothes instead of wearing a t-shirt and jeans to work, a scenario in which her employer would send her home, Brandi said.


Volunteers rewarded in hugs

The boutique is staffed by volunteer consultants, who ask about the nature of the job and advise clients on what types of clothing, makeup, shoes and accessories would be appropriate for it.

Greta Huber, a retired downtown resident, decided to volunteer at the boutique two months ago after recently relocating to Bellingham.

“I wanted to volunteer somewhere, and I like clothes,” she chuckled. “Everybody is so nice and grateful, and I get hugs.”

The difficulty for many of the clients is the initial investment in attire before they receive a paycheck, said boutique manager Leslie Wargo.

“First impressions are huge, especially at an interview,” she said. “I see clients walk out of the boutique and they feel beautiful. It gives them confidence that will come through on that first day of an interview. It makes them feel good and special.”

Wargo has spent her tenure as boutique manager sprucing it up and organizing the clothes with the help of a dozen volunteers, some of who have worked there almost seven years. She is focused on finding trendier, more modern items, and would like to host a fashion-show fundraiser soon. She looks forward to the YWCA’s upcoming remodel that will give the boutique better lighting and a new paint job.

She remembers a day when two plus-sized women came to the boutique skeptical of finding anything attractive and fitting. The boutique had just received a donation of fashionable plus-size clothing, and the women were delighted to find several items that worked, Wargo said.

“I remember one had ripped jeans on, and was glad for the opinion on what looked good. One said, ‘I haven’t been shopping in a year,’” Wargo recalled. “I was in tears at the end and we did this group hug — it was great.”


Women in poverty

A recent report on poverty in Whatcom County surveyed 610 low-income households, of which 65 percent of respondents were female. The survey found that respondents felt there were not enough living-wage jobs in the county, that they lacked job skills, and that there were not enough subsidized slots available for job training and education services.

Seventy percent of the respondents said it was hard to get or keep a good job (this number didn’t change when just looking at the female respondents).

The report also highlighted difficulties for the respondents in obtaining affordable housing and affording transportation and childcare.

Elizabeth Jennings, executive director for the Whatcom Coalition for Healthy Communities, which sponsored the report, said that added together, these issues likely explain the high level of women living below the poverty level in Whatcom County.

“I can’t say definitively, but these people are saying those are the barriers,” she said. “One could extrapolate the high cost of housing and low availability of living-wage jobs are factors.”

The report, entitled the Whatcom Prosperity Project, is available in its draft form online at, and the final version will be released at the end of July, Jennings said.

LeeAnne Moss, executive director of the Seattle-based Women’s Funding Alliance, which recently conducted a report on the status of women and girls in Pierce, Snohomish, King and Whatcom counties, said several factors might account for the higher level of women and single mothers living below the poverty line in Whatcom County.

A high proportion of Whatcom County women are enrolled in higher education, and they tend to temporarily experience poverty, she said. Whatcom County’s high number of service-industry jobs and low wages — lower than King, Pierce and Snohomish counties — could also account for the discrepancy between counties, she said.

WorkSource Whatcom on Prospect Street is one of the local resources shouldering the burden of offering employment skills and job training for Whatcom County’s unemployed and low-income women and men. While the organization does not exclusively help low-income clients, they take priority for employment services and job training programs, said resource specialist AnnMarie Jordan. The goal is to help move clients from lower-incomes and low-skilled work to higher incomes and skill levels, she said.

WorkSource’s several employment and job-training programs, all of which many low-income women qualify for, provide assessments of clients’ skills, preferences and education. Clients are then connected with job openings, given resume creation, interviewing and job skills, and linked with job training if needed.

Jordan said WorkSource collaborates with local employers to find out what businesses and organizations need in terms of skilled labor in the community. In Whatcom County, the health care, construction, manufacturing and marine and wood products industries have a high demand for workers, and WorkSource attempts to help meet that demand.

Jordan said she is not surprised by the Census figures. A portion of WorkSource’s clients have job searched unsuccessfully for months and can’t find work. Some don’t do well in interviews or don’t have enough job training, while others are missing either an entire skill set or just knowledge of a certain type of software, she said. Others are in school but can’t afford it or are retired and still want to work, but need new skills. Many are parents.

“Everyone wants to live here, but we have a service-oriented, lower-paying economy,” Jordan said. “We need (these programs) to build a strong workforce and to have skilled workers available to meet the needs of local businesses.”

Brandi is one of the women who has successfully hooked up with the services she needs to help her succeed in work. She said she appreciated the Back to Work Boutique’s helpful volunteers and its organized facility.

“I think it’s awesome, especially for people who aren’t employed yet and especially for office jobs,” she said. “You can’t just go in to work in jeans and a t-shirt.”

Brandi said she will likely start working full time again soon at her current job. She said she hopes her next visit to the boutique will be to donate clothes, not try them on.


Women in poverty

The following is according to 2005 U.S. Census Bureau statistics:


Women living below poverty line:

Whatcom County: 15.3 percent

Skagit County: 13.8 percent

Snohomish County: 9.4 percent

King County: 10.2 percent

Pierce County: 12.4 percent

Washington state: 13 percent


Single mothers living below the poverty line

Whatcom County: 50.8 percent

Skagit County: 42.3 percent

Snohomish County: 22.7 percent

King County: 27.3 percent

Pierce County: 33 percent

Washington state: 33.6 percent


Federal poverty level for a single mother with one child under 18

$13,896, or $1,158 a month.


Cost to buy four professional outfits at Macy’s

A two-piece suit: $179.00

Two skirts: $99

Two blouses: $105

A dress: $99

A pair of shoes: $69

Total Cost: $551.00

Percent of monthly income: 47.5 percent


Cost for four professional outfits at Value Village

A two-piece suit: $14.99

Two skirts: $13.98

Two blouses: $9.98

A dress: $9.99

A pair of shoes: $6.99

Total Cost: $55.93

Percent of monthly income: 4.8 percent


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