On a recent Tuesday at about 11 a.m. Faye Dunning took a long lunch, leaving her office at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Lawrenceville, where she is senior clinical site manager. She wasn’t, however, going Christmas shopping for her four grandchildren. She wasn’t meeting a friend or a business associate for a holiday lunch. She wasn’t even going to eat lunch at all. She was, in fact, going to help someone get dressed.

Twice a month Dunning takes a long lunch and drives 15 minutes from her office to Dress for Success Mercer County, housed on the first floor of an apartment building just off Quakerbridge Road in Hamilton, where she volunteers as a “personal shopper.” According to executive director Debbie Bronfeld, Dress for Success clients are women, typically from low-income backgrounds, who are referred from social service agencies, HomeFront’s WorkFirst program, Mercer Street Friends, Catholic Charities, Mercer County College’s Career Training Institute in Trenton, the Harris School on Quakerbridge Road (a training facility that teaches the skills necessary for entry level office administration and medical assistant jobs), Greater Trenton Behavioral Health Care, Crisis Ministry of Princeton and Trenton, and the Mill Hill Child and Family Development Corporation.

A Dress for Success client who has a scheduled job interview or is planning to attend a job fair makes an appointment to come to DFS’s offices, where she is paired with a personal shopper like Dunning, who accompanies her on a “shopping trip” to pull together a complete interview outfit, typically a suit, with all the trimmings — hosiery, shoes, jewelry, a handbag, and if the weather dictates, a coat. The client gets to take the outfit home, for free, and if she gets the job, she can come back for a whole week’s worth of work wear. She is also invited to join DFS’s Professional Women’s Group, whose members meet the first Wednesday of the month for a light supper, networking, and a guest speaker. Past speakers have given presentations on budgeting, resume writing, interview skills, parenting, women’s health issues, nutrition, and time management.

The “shopping” area at DFS looks remarkably like a small boutique you might find in any downtown: suits, slacks, and blouses are arranged by size on circular freestanding racks (donated by Dress Barn) and on units along the walls. Shoes are arranged neatly by size in boxes, just like at any shoe store. Even the jewelry is displayed on the same turntable fixtures you’d see in a department store or boutique. It is inviting and clean with cheerful lighting, dressing rooms, and full-length mirrors.

In 2008 DFS suited 296 women and gave them 2,500 items of clothing, including suits, blazers, skirts, pants, and tops. Through November of 2009, DFS has suited 309 women for interviews and job fairs, and has given a week’s worth of work wear to 72 employed women.

On that recent Tuesday afternoon, the place buzzed with the happy murmurings and occasional exclaims of delight heard in any shop full of women on a mission to get a new outfit. Dunning is in her element here, taking around a tall, slim client named Elisha Barnes, who is getting outfitted for an interview for a housekeeping job at the Marriott. Dunning asks Barnes what size she is, what colors she likes. Barnes says she’s a size 6 but Dunning quickly discovers she’s a 4. Barnes says she prefers slacks to skirts, but Dunning knows what the end result has to be: an interview requires a suit with a skirt.

Dunning expertly plucks a dark blue conservatively-cut suit from the rack, then a pale yellow shell to go under it, a necklace, watch, low pumps, and a handbag, She puts Barnes completely at ease and bustles about with clear purpose. No time for dilly-dallying. Dunning means business. Remember, she is on her lunch hour. Elisha tries on the outfit and emerges from the dressing room, transformed. Dunning turns her professional, critical eye on her Pygmalion: something’s missing. She touches her fingertip to her mouth momentarily in deep thought, then grabs a floral silk scarf and expertly ties it about Alicia’s neck, draping the ends just so. She smiles. Barnes smiles. Done.

Turns out Dunning’s natural affinity for pulling together outfits comes from professional training. After graduating from high school in Wayne, where she was raised, the eldest of four siblings, she earned an associate degree in merchandising from the Laboratory Institute of Fashion Merchandising in New York, then worked in Paramus in what used to be Stern’s. But she longed to return to the south — where her mother was from and where her family spent summers.

She met her husband on one of those trips south and was married in 1974. She attended Queens College in North Carolina, and graduated with a B.S.N. in nursing in 1998. Dunning’s mother was a nurse until she stayed home to raise her kids, and told Dunning growing up, “With a nursing degree you can go anywhere and do anything.” Her father worked as an audio engineer for NBC in New York, a job not without its perqs: Dunning says she and her sister and two brothers got to go to Cape Canaveral in the summer and watch all those Apollos lift off in the 1960s, they got to sit in the peanut gallery on the Howdy Doody Show, and they got to go out on the floor and dance on Hullabaloo, a precursor of American Bandstand.

When Dunning graduated from Queens College, the offers of night shifts at hospitals were plentiful but out of the question for Dunning, whose two boys were by that time teenagers. Through nursing friends she found out about a nursing job at an infertility clinic in Charlotte, which gave her the flexibility she wanted until her boys went off to college. Both went to UNC Chapel Hill, and Dunning decided to move back to Raleigh, where she joined a CRO (contract research organization) and traveled extensively for her job throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The travel, she says, was fun the first year, then exhausting. “I told them either you bring me inside or I have to quit,” she says. Her company let her run clinical trials without traveling but she knew if she was going to jump to the next level as a clinical site manager, she’d have to move. She found a job in near Chicago where, she says, “I have never been so cold in my entire life.” Dunning stuck it out for her one-year contract then looked for a job that would enable her to move back to New Jersey, where her siblings and mom still lived.

She joined Bristol-Myers Squibb in 2004. Today she oversees the global clinical trials for an investigational drug for kidney transplant patients, tracking the work being conducted at 20 sites, mainly hospitals, making sure the doctors and nurses are following both the Bristol-Myers Squibb protocol and the FDA regulations, and making sure their patients aren’t having any problems.

Two years ago the itch to find meaningful volunteer work started, Dunning says. “I’ve always volunteered,” she says. In her early 20s, before she was married, Dunning volunteered with Big Brothers/Big Sisters. “I wanted to help women. There’s always been a good old boys club. Women don’t help each other. I think it’s time for women to help each other and to help themselves.”

When her boys were young, Dunning, then in her mid-30s, volunteered for an organization called Friends Helping Families, where she was matched with a woman from a low-income background in her early 20s with no health insurance and three children, the youngest of whom had some serious medical issues. Dunning’s nursing background turned out to be a great boon, as she contacted doctors and dentists who would provide care at no cost.

She worked with this woman for three or four years and would often bring her own sons with her. “I thought it would be good for them to see how other people lived. I wanted them to know they had a good life and needed to give back. After a visit once I asked them if they saw any difference between this family’s house — which was a shack with plastic on the windows — and ours. One of my sons said, ‘Theirs is one story, ours is two.’ He didn’t judge at all.” Today Dunning says both her sons have volunteered for the Special Olympics and one recently traveled to Thailand with his girlfriend to work as a volunteer teaching English to children who were going to be adopted by English-speaking families.

“My mother had three girls,” says Dunning. “She always told us, ‘You can do anything you want to do. Don’t let anybody hold you back.’ We had to learn how to change a tire, everything. We had her as a role model. My dad was in a union; whenever there was a strike my mom would pick up and go to work as a nurse.”

Two years ago Dunning got a memo from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Women’s Affinity Network, a group of female employees who do volunteer and charity work, announcing that they were starting a Mercer County branch of the national nonprofit Dress for Success and were looking for volunteers. Dunning signed up. BM-S held the inaugural suit drive for the chapter, which brought in 500 suits, and gave seed money to get the chapter off the ground. The Gershon Group, which owns the apartment building that houses DFS’s office, donates the space. DFS only covers maintenance.

“I like the idea of helping someone get ahead,” says Dunning. She is rewarded for her volunteer efforts at DFS with the transformations she sees in the clients. She remembers, for example, one plus-size client who had gotten a secretarial job in an attorney’s office. “She felt so bad about herself,” say Dunning, “because she had no work clothes. In fact one of the attorneys had remarked on her clothing and hurt her feelings. When she came in here we were able to fit her with a couple of jackets and some nice pants. She was so appreciative. She couldn’t wait to go back to work. She was so happy she actually wrote a note.”

Dunning remembers another client, a young woman who arrived wearing big pants and an oversized hoodie. “When she first came in I wasn’t even sure she was my client,” says Dunning. “We started talking. She was going on an interview, and we got her out of those big clothes. She was tall and willowy so we put her in a really pretty suit and jewelry, and she was beautiful. I think she was so surprised.”

As the personal shoppers dress their clients they also weave interviewing tips casually into the conversation. “I might say, ‘do you have children,’” says Dunning. “They might say, ‘Yes, I have four children.’ And I say, ‘You know you need to get a babysitter for your interview.’ If they have long dagger fingernails, we say, ‘you really need to cut those down and use a light or clear polish.’ If they have monster size earrings we might say, ‘let’s find you some nice professional earrings.’ Some of our clients are used to wearing skin-tight clothes, and we have to tell them in a nice way that those are not appropriate for an interview. You don’t want to hurt their feelings. You want them to be pumped for their interview.”

DFS’s next step, says Debbie Bronfeld, is to establish a mentor program for their clients. Called Woman 2 Woman, it will have two levels. Members of the DFS Professional Women’s Group will be matched with a long-term mentor. Women who come in for an interview suit will be matched with a short term mentor who will touch base with them on the phone the night before the interview, to make sure all is well and any logistics, like babysitters (90 percent of DFS clients are mothers) and transportation, are taken care of, and then again the night following the interview, to see how it went.

Bronfeld says being a mentor is, like the personal shoppers, a very small time commitment for a volunteer, as little as two hours a week, and can be done all on the phone, a convenient option for working professionals. “You don’t have to give 20 hours a month to volunteer.” Bronfeld has had kick-off meetings with two companies, Kaplan EduNeering and GE Licensing and Trading, both in Carnegie Center, to discuss the mentor program as a volunteer opportunity for their employees. Both companies initially wanted to do a suit drive, and Bronfeld was able to tell them about the mentor program. Next month she will be meeting with Covance, also in Carnegie Center.

Bronfeld grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, the daughter of an accountant/controller and a special education teacher. She earned a bachelor’s in business administration from UMass Amherst in 1983, and an MBA from Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in 1990. She began her career in operations, material planning, and inventory management, first working in New York for a video/DVD company. Her husband, Jason, got an IT job at Bristol-Myers Squibb in 1998 and the couple moved to Princeton. They have two sons, age 12 and 9.

Bronfeld joined Church & Dwight, doing demand planning. A friend, Ellen Hackman, asked her to join the board of DFS when it was founded in 2007. She was already volunteering at Special Olympics and is the VP of community service for the PTO of her son’s school, organizing food drives, warm clothing drives, and the Unicef program. “I guess I just like to give back,” she says. “I feel that this is something I should do.” She was involved in the initial suit drive for DFS and recruited volunteers to come in and organize the suits. In August, 2007 she was asked to become executive director. On October 16, 2007, DFS suited its first client.

Bronfeld’s biggest challenge at DFS, not surprisingly, is raising money. Currently the nonprofit has a $72,000 budget, which covers her salary, boutique manager Frances Cohen’s part-time salary, training workshops that Bronfeld attends throughout the year, insurance, and overhead. Bronfeld goes after corporate donations, as well as foundations and individuals. Last year a local artist created a painting for a Mother’s Day card, which the board sold to friends and family.

For the past two years, proceeds from the annual Palmer Square Fashion Show, always a sell-out, have benefited DFS to the tune of $4,000 a year. People can donate new or gently-used clothing or they can sponsor a client for a suiting for $100. “When people donate their clothes,” says Bronfeld, “we ask them to give us $5 per suit. We got in about 2,000 suits last year.”

Donations come in other ways, too. Bronfeld says ETS had a department requiring considerable travel. One of the employees asked everyone, men and women, to bring back the travel-size toiletries ubiquitous in hotel rooms. She ended up filling a whole box and donating it to DFS. These are used in a goody bag that every DFS client is given at the end of a suiting. Through the national office of DFS, Bronfeld says, in-kind donations in bulk have included makeup from Mary Kay and Bobbi Brown, pearl necklaces from Avon, black plus-size suits from Wal-Mart, and shoes from Charles & David.

The payback is big, says Bronfeld. “You can give a little, and it still goes a long way. You are supporting women in our community. The big thing is, when these women get jobs, their households are more stable. They’re building the economy. Sometimes we call the suits ‘suits of armor.’ You see the client stand up straight. She knows she looks good. You see the confidence she has, knowing she can take herself to the next level.”

DFS’s Professional Women’s Group just had their first annual holiday event. One client, says, Bronfeld, got up in front of the group and said, ‘Even my daughter said, ‘Mom, you’re so professional looking.’ She wears blazers every day. People approach her at work. She just gets treated so much more nicely. All our clients are treated the same here, with dignity. We build women’s confidence to be able to go back into the work force, not only giving them the clothes to look the part but also the confidence to make that first impression.”

Dress for Success, 9 Lamont Avenue, Pond Run Housing, Rear Suite 1, Hamilton, 08619.609-587-8298. www.dressforsuccess.org/mercercounty

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