ACDN: How long have you been involved with your agency and the Alliance of Career Development Nonprofits (ACDN)?
Sharan: I have had the privilege of being part of Suit Yourself (SY) from the very beginning--before the organization even had a name. Suit Yourself Inc., was born based on a student’s request for professional attire for a job interview. A focus group was created of professional women in Lake, Geauga and Ashtabula counties who work with other non-profit organizations. After our initial meeting it was evident that there was a need in our area and the beginning planning stages of Suit Yourself, Inc. was launched in November of 2003. Suit Yourself, Inc. has been a member of ACDN since 2006. Several of our Board Members attended the first [ACDN] national conference held in Dayton, Ohio which gave us a strong foundation in establishing our organization.
ACDN: What makes your organization special or unique?
Sharan: Our two boutiques are located in Lake County and Ashtabula County. Lake is geographically the smallest county in Ohio; and neighboring Ashtabula County is geographically the largest county (and goes all the way to the Pennsylvania border). In spite of those challenges, we have an excellent working relationship with our network of referring agencies. We do not charge our referring agencies a fee. Our well-run client referral process serves women who are actively job seeking or have a scheduled interview. However, we pride ourselves on our willingness to handle unique requests. Agency representatives know they can reach out directly to Suit Yourself to suit a client on Christmas eve so she can start a new job on December 26 or provide a week's worth of professional clothing to a woman in a domestic violence shelter on a Sunday so she can go to work the next day without her coworkers knowing about her situation.
Suit Yourself, Inc. has a strong working Board where each member of the Board chairs a committee. We have no paid staff so the Board relies on its volunteers not only to help serve clients, but to assist with donation day, serve on committees, and assemble our care packages. We ask our volunteers to share their special talents. For example, we had a volunteer who loved to scrapbook. She became our historian and documented the first several years of our organization in beautiful decorated scrapbooks. At one time, we had a volunteer who was our “shoe lady”—yes, she would polish all the shoes and keep them organized and presentable looking on the shelving unit. Our success is driven by our volunteers. We focus on making sure they know they are appreciated. They have one-on-one contact with all Officers and Board members when they volunteer with Suit Yourself and their suggestions for change are incorporated in boutique operations and policy development. For National Volunteer Appreciation month last April we gave volunteers tickets to our spring fundraiser at a recently restored Steele Mansion, a high-demand venue. To reduce expenses, this April's National Volunteer Appreciation event was held at a local hospital but we planned to give the institution a "tea room ambiance" by bringing in china, silver, and teacups. Each volunteer went home with the flower centerpieces. Our Board and volunteers are so dedicated and passionate about the mission of Suit Yourself. We work together and as the saying goes, ‘many hands make for light work.’
ACDN: How has this work affected you?
Sharan: I have a greater appreciation for humanity being part of this organization. Grateful for the clients I serve who are sometimes at the lowest point of their lives yet so optimistic; and, thankful for our faithful donors and community who believe in our mission. I find helping others to be extremely gratifying.
ACDN: What is the biggest challenge in your role and how are you overcoming this challenge?
Sharan: From a start-up organization to a 15-year history the challenges have changed. As a founding Board member I have served as the Treasurer, Vice President and President. The initial challenges were writing the by-laws, facilitating our first fundraiser (where we raised $300) and obtaining non-profit status. The struggle of finding a location conducive to our client’s needs in both Lake and Ashtabula counties, yet within our budget and maintaining a budget is a challenge. Our first clothing drive was quite interesting and rather funny now looking back because we have come so far and it’s like a well-oiled machine. However, to me, the biggest challenge that still remains is trying to assemble a Z-rack.
ACDN: Tell us about your signature fundraising event.
Sharan: We hold one main signature event each year and several small events. Our signature event is a reverse raffle held in Ashtabula County. In addition to the raffle, side boards, bingo, and auction items there is dancing. A successful reverse raffle enables us to have a balanced budget.
ACDN: Share a client story.
Sharan: Serving clients is a privilege and rewarding experience. Each client story is unique. It’s an emotional job knowing where our clients are coming from; however, it’s very important to make sure the client feels comfortable and safe, as you don’t always know their story. I have been doing this for a long time so I consider myself a seasoned volunteer. One particular client that stands out is a lady who needed professional apparel for her job interview. The suiting went very well and when she left I asked her if I could give her a hug for good luck. You see, that client told me she grew up in the fostering system as a child going from one placement to another it was not until she met her husband did anyone ever hug her or tell her they loved her.
Another story that comes to mind is the client I served during the winter months in Northeast Ohio where we had frigid temperatures and snow covered the sidewalks. The client I was serving was referred to us from Forbes House (a domestic violence shelter). It was an emergency placement as she only had the clothes on her back. Suit Yourself provided the client with a professional outfit to wear the next day to court and several outfits for work, including a winter coat. This suiting was unique as the client brought along her two children where one child was carrying a blanket because it was so cold and windy outside as they walked there. The highlight of that suiting was giving her daughter a beautiful heart shaped necklace to surprise her mom with for Valentine’s Day. Of course, the little girl could not wait until then so her mom opened up the gift at our boutique. The look and expression on both faces was priceless and still brings tears to my eyes. For those that believe in the circle of life, Suit Yourself has served a client who was going through a rough patch in life and gave her the apparel she needed to land a job. Not only did she land a job, she now works for a referring agency of ours and refers clients to us. Every client story is unique and personal. To me, volunteering is more than just suiting the client. It’s letting them know we believe in them and support them on this new chapter of their life.
ACDN: Being a member of ACDN enables our agency to…
Sharan: …keep abreast of the current trends and best practices of client services, serving women, marketing and fundraising.
If it were not for ACDN…
Sharan: ...Suit Yourself would not have a combined buying power that allows us to purchase items at a substantial lower cost and work with other agencies with our mission.
ACDN’s Interview Feature showcases ACDN Member leaders. This includes founders, executive directors, and program managers. The interviews offer a more in-depth perspective on the critical work our member agencies do throughout the year and demonstrates the impact on their community.