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Association of American Medical Colleges Tomorrow's Doctors, Tomorrow's Cures®

Medical School Clothing Drive Helps Women Dress for Success

AAMC Reporter: October 2011

-By Sarah Mann

Ona Faye-Petersen, M.D., could have taken her old clothes to the Salvation Army like everyone else. But she had other, bigger plans.

Community service at medical schools typically involves medicine in some way: a vaccine drive, health screenings, or a student-run clinic, for example. But the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine (UAB) went in an entirely different direction when Faye-Petersen was looking for a place to donate professional clothes after cleaning out her closet. She wanted them to go to disadvantaged women who were interviewing or beginning a new job and could not afford professional attire. She was not aware of such a program in Birmingham and thought female faculty at the medical school might be able fill that void.

“The motto for UAB at the time was ‘UAB: medicine that touches the world,’” said Faye-Petersen, a pathology and obstetrics and gynecology professor at the school. “We have a lot of cross-continental efforts, and I started thinking about touching our own community.”

After talking with medical school administrators and a board member of the YWCA Central Alabama, Faye-Petersen learned that the program she was looking for did, in fact, exist. The YWCA’s My Sister’s Closet program had started more than 15 years ago as a closet—literally—where female employees donated their own clothes for women staying at local shelters.

The goal was to help the women gain independence by providing appropriate clothes for them to either maintain a job or enter the workforce.

“These women already are dealing with so many things: transportation, child care, jobs, and physical problems,” said Dorothy Mueller, coordinator of special projects and initiatives at the YWCA. “It lifts a tremendous burden when they know they don’t have to worry about having appropriate clothing for work.”

These were exactly the women Faye-Petersen was hoping to help.

“I sent an e-mail to all female faculty in the school of medicine and said, ‘We have a challenge to help the women in our community, and here is what we can do,’” she said. “The response was mind-boggling because this was the equivalent of a cold call.”

The response was so strong not because women were eager to clean out their closets but because the donations had a specific purpose, Faye-Petersen said.

“The clothes were going to a group of women who wanted to work and better their lives, and did not have any other means to acquire clothes,” she said. “I think that has a very different philosophical air that inspires people.”

The clothing drive, dubbed Suits 4 Success, in its first year collected what Faye-Petersen described as “literally a ton of clothes.” The excitement women felt for the program was evident as they dropped off their clothes and shared stories about what a particular outfit had meant to them.

“Somebody would say, ‘This is the outfit I wore when I got my job,’ or ‘I wore this when I interviewed, and it brought me good luck,’” Faye-Petersen said. “The sense that the women could share those stories is very different than putting their clothes in a bag and leaving them on a doorstep.”

What started as a tiny depository for women’s clothing has, in part because of Suits 4 Success, become a sleek boutique that supplies lightly worn professional clothes free of charge to women across Alabama looking to land that big break in the professional world. As of July, My Sister’s Closet had distributed more than 8,000 garments to 823 women in 2011.

Suits 4 Success has become an annual tradition at UAB and now includes the entire university. Although Faye-Petersen remains heavily involved, the UAB Commission on the Status of Women—which supports female faculty, staff, and students—now spearheads the drive. According to Mueller, the YWCA has begun to rely on the drive to restock inventory at My Sister’s Closet every year.

“Suits 4 Success totally changed our ability to provide the right things for these women,” said Mueller. “We have been able to help a number of clients really improve their confidence. When they leave My Sister’s Closet, they have what they need to compete in the workforce with a level playing field. We just try to give them the basis for success.”