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Teaming Up for a New Beginning

Crest Cleaners, Dress For Success help prepare women for new careers.

An area dry cleaning chain has teamed up to help give women in need a clean start.

Seven branches of Crest Cleaners are currently accepting donations of business suits for Dress For Success, an international organization that provides career training and clothes for women.

"The amount of garments we've already received is unbelievable," said David Slan, president of Crest Cleaners.

Starting Oct. 1, the stores began a partnership with Dress For Success in accepting previously owned business suits for women. Crest Cleaners will clean and make any alterations to garments, press them and, once a month, Dress For Success will pick them up from each location and take them to its Washington office.

"Dress For Success needs outlets for people to drop off clothes," Slan said. "It's amazing what they do for women re-entering the work force. We're pleased we're able to help."

A FEW MONTHS ago, the management at Crest Cleaners was looking for a way to give back to the community it served, said Mike Conti, chief operating officer for the company. A spreadsheet of organizations across Fairfax County was created, filled with groups that collected clothing for various reasons. Dress For Success was selected because it helps women year-round with professional attire to wear for job interviews and training.

"When we called them, they said we were exactly what they were looking for," Conti said. Prior to this partnership, Dress For Success had a drop-off location inside the Pentagon City Mall.

"They would get bags and bags of stuff that was all wrinkled and dirty," he said. "We're able to be a drop-off point and clean the donations for them. It's a perfect fit."

For now, the agreement between Dress For Success is for one year, with both sides to discuss how the partnership has gone next fall.

"This started as a business venture, but I like what I've seen so far," Conti said.

Jennifer McNulty, executive director for Dress For Success in Washington, D.C. said the free dry cleaning service provided in the partnership saves her organization a huge expense.

"It's been a tremendous help already, and it cuts down on the time we'd have to otherwise spend on getting the items cleaned," McNulty said. Before the agreement, volunteers for the group would be assigned to take donations collected at the Pentagon City Mall site and sort them out before taking them to the cleaners, she explained.

McNulty said she and some volunteers collected the first round of donations last week, over 600 suits ready to be distributed to women looking to better themselves through higher paying jobs.

Looking to the future, McNulty said Dress For Success is currently planning a capital campaign for 2007, to raise $100,000 to expand its current 750 square foot facility, in order to provide more job training services for women.

"We'd like to have a career center on site to provide continuing counseling and training for our clients," she said.

One of the hundreds of clients helped by Dress For Success is Kristina Gilchrist, who came to Dress For Success eight months ago after moving from Miami while pregnant with her son.

Gilchrist was trying to get herself off welfare, and part of her struggle was finding a job.

"I met Jennifer at a meeting where she talked about professionalism," Gilchrist said. "She gave me the first suit I needed for my first job interview."

Six months later, Gilchrist began working at FTI Consulting in Washington, D.C Encouraged by McNulty, she also began working on getting a book of poetry published, which she did on her own earlier this year.

"Now that I'm in my first job, I'm making a lot more money," Gilchrist said. "My husband and I just bought our first house, and I'm looking for a printer to have my book done more professionally."

The assistance she received from Dress For Success, both through job training and professional appearance advice, had helped Gilchrist turn her life around.

"It's a burden lifted," she said. "When I found out I was having my son, I was in college in Miami. We didn't have anywhere to stay ... Dress For Success helped make me feel good about myself."

It's important for women to have professional-looking suits and clothes for job interviews, not just to appear suitable for a job, but for their own confidence, Gilchrist said.

"This is a secret people should know about," she said. "A lot of women in my old situation don't take advantage of the help that's out there and more really should. When you hook up with them, they really do have your best interest at heart."