PENSACOLA, Fla. (BP)–For Debbe Jefcoat, coordinating the Suit Your Self ministry at Olive Baptist Church, Pensacola, Fla., is not just about providing women with clothing. It is an opportunity to help them find a life of hope and a future.
Suit Your Self began in 1996 at First United Methodist Church of Pensacola. Jane Holston, the coordinator there, contacted Olive Baptist Church with the prospect of beginning a similar ministry due to the tremendous need and Olive’s convenient location. Suit Your Self North became a reality in April 1999. After only six months of service, 107 women have participated with a total of 35 outfits being distributed.
Suit Your Self is a program designed to outfit women with clothing appropriate for job interviews, and for working thereafter, free of charge. The program currently serves approximately six women a week.
Word of mouth has been the best form of advertising for the ministry, Jefcoat noted, though announcements occasionally are run in the church newsletter and bulletin, as well as the local city newspaper.
Most of the women who are served are sent to Olive on a referral basis, though some women in need are served without referral.
“We work with about 15 different agencies,” Jefcoat said. These agencies range from one that is primarily for women who have recently been released from incarceration, a shelter for abused women and a college campus that offers a Women in Transition course.
“The women in transition specifically are women who have never worked and have for some reason or another been thrown back into the workforce with no skills. They take this four-week course that relates to them what is needed to enter the workplace and then are referred to us for a fitting,” Jefcoat said.
An application must be completed by all participating women, which provides Olive with a basic assessment of the women’s needs — both general and spiritual. A record is kept of each person assisted, to enable the church to continue to minister to their needs.
The women also are responsible for bringing in proof of employment once they have been hired. At that time, Jefcoat provides them with at least five to six complete outfits that are suitable for their particular occupation.
“One lady we had helped came back for her outfits after being hired, during her lunch break. I fitted her with numerous outfits. She was so excited that she wore the clothes we gave her back to work instead of her own,” Jefcoat said.
Suit Your Self is staffed by approximately 10 volunteers who work with Jefcoat, secretary of Olive Baptist’s social services department. Volunteers work a couple of hours every Monday afternoon sorting clothes by size and season, organizing shoes and making displays in the Suit Your Self room.
Members of the church or people from the community have donated all of the clothing distributed.
“We take dress clothing that is appropriate for a job interview. We do keep some casual clothes on hand for women who will not have office jobs. Anything we can’t use we turn over to another organization in our church called CARE Connection,” Jefcoat said.
On some occasions, Suit Your Self will have a group fitting for as many as 10 women at one time. At those times, all the volunteers are on hand to assist and they present the ladies with a booklet on job etiquette.
“We are fortunate to have a lady who has retired with a degree in business education in our church, who has a heart for this service and comes to speak to them about the business world,” Jefcoat noted.
Also, a cosmetics consultant in the church comes to the group fittings and does facials for the women. Three hairdressers have volunteered their time to style the women’s hair on the church premises.
Several members who work in department stores have given donations through their stores by donating money to purchase items needed, Jefcoat said.
“I have a heart for helping women to feel good,” she said. “When you feel good about your appearance, it boosts your self-esteem and confidence.”
Jefcoat related how a 21-year-old woman with a year-old child had been left by her husband, forcing her back into the workplace. After being fitted by Jefcoat, she was hired by a dentist’s office. She related to Jefcoat that the employer had told her how nice she looked, and asked her where she had bought her outfit. The young lady responded, “I got it from a friend.” A friend indeed.
The tears that well in Jefcoat’s eyes as she speaks of such victories show her compassion for the women that she has encountered.
“God has blessed us in a tremendous way,” she said. “We started in a very small room and now have expanded to a much larger one.”
Olive currently does not have a Suit Your Self program for men, but Jefcoat said she isn’t ruling that possibility out.
She said she daily claims the promise of Jeremiah 29:1 and uses it with each woman who comes to Suit Your Self for help: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Cooper is a freelance writer for the Florida Baptist Witness newsjournal.