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'He had broken both of her legs': How Dress for Success is 'life-changing' for refugee women in Vancouver

Don't let the name fool you: This organization not only helps women enter the workforce, but it also changes the lives of newcomers to Canada
dress for success
Dress for Success Vancouver has been providing life-changing support and mentorship to women for 23 years.

Dress for Success was founded in New York in 1997. Founder Nancy Lublin, a law student at the time, received a $5,000 inheritance from her grandfather and used it to start a charity that offered professional attire to women trying to enter the workforce.

The organization is now in 144 cities worldwide and Vancouver is the largest affiliate outside of the U.S.

"We opened our doors in 1999," says executive director Amy Robichaud. "Since then, we've served over 34,000 women in the Greater Vancouver area, and our clients [...] contributed just over a billion dollars in wages back into the local economy. Which means that we've had essentially a 13,000 per cent return on investment for every charitable dollar that's been donated to our organization in the last 23 years."

Dress for Success is hosting its 10th annual fundraising luncheon on Nov. 2, but Robichaud says that the main goal in Vancouver is to empower women into good jobs, financial independence, and personal success. "And if we get to do that, it's a good day, good month, good year."

How does Dress for Success work?

The charity has a small staff team and 160 active volunteers who Robichaud calls "the heart and the lungs of what we do."

Volunteer mentors work with clients one on one, and most of them are certified human resource professionals or certified coaches. Professional facilitators and speakers donate their time to host workshops and women's groups to provide valuable information to women struggling to make ends meet.

"It's the community coming together and mostly women giving back to other women and creating this sort of full circle moment," says Robichaud. "Much of the human resources that we lean on is provided by volunteers." Many of those volunteers know that they've had help to succeed and are paying it forward by helping others.

All of the Dress for Success clothing is donated by individuals or local retailers, manufacturers, and sometimes film houses who donate their wardrobe pieces after productions have wrapped. An estimated 40,000 tons of textiles are donated to Dress for Success every year and anything that isn't appropriate for business attire is redistributed to women's organizations and shelters in the Downtown Eastside.

A success story: Newcomer to Canada fleeing domestic violence gets much-needed support

Dress for Success Vancouver just started offering newcomer packages to women who have recently arrived in Canada. It's outside of their typical mandate of direct employment and pre-employment support but the packages can be necessary for building relationships so that when people are ready they have opportunities to help them find good work.

"Our goal is just really to shorten the time frame that women who are newcomers spend struggling to enter the economy," says Robichaud.

The newcomer packages contain everything a mother, wife, or individual may not have thought to bring like winter coats, wash-and-wear casual clothing, personal care items, and some nicer pieces like a handbag or cosmetics that can boost confidence. The packages also include a note that tells women to come into the boutique if they need anything else and to reach out when they're ready to being their job search.  

"We had a woman who called us after receiving her package and said she would really love to come in and try out some shoes," recalls Robichaud. "She had fled her home country with her two children. And three years prior to arriving in Canada, because he had lost his job and blamed her, her husband had broken both of her legs."

She was only able to get away from his violence by fleeing the country and taking her kids with her but her legs weren't fully healed. They became refugees in another country for a few years before making it to Canada and because they didn't have access to proper health care her legs never healed properly.

"She said she'd really love to come in and try on footwear, but because of the situation with her with her legs, it was really hard to find footwear that was comfortable," explains Robichaud. "But she was able to come into our boutique and we happen to have a donation of GEOX shoes which are incredibly comfortable, incredibly ergonomic. And we had two in her size and she put the first pair on and just burst into tears."

A pair of shoes can be 'life-changing'

The woman told them that this was the first time in three years that her feet hadn't hurt. "She was looking for work here, she just secured a permanent residency and knowing that she was going to be able to go to job interviews and start to do some of those pieces without being in pain every day—" Robichaud tears up as she shares the story over the phone. "That is life-changing."

"This is a woman who has faced the worst odds and who saved herself and saved her family and got herself to a new place. And I can't even imagine doing all that while also being in chronic pain," she says.

The woman now has a job that supports her family and Robichaud reports that she's in the least amount of pain she's ever been. Dress for Success is going to continue to work with her to build a safe and caring community around her so that she can keep succeeding and so can her two kids.

"This is a generational effect of a pair of shoes," says Robichaud. "Just an example of how easy it can be to completely change the trajectory of someone's life, but also, what a privilege it is to be able to walk alongside these incredible clients who are incredibly brave, and incredibly beautiful, inside and out, who are striving and have ambitions and dreams...because we're here we can help them achieve that."

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