Women who need help get lots of it from Attridge and Fishel

by: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Barb Attridge, right, and Karen Fishel form an unbeatable combination of energy and organization for Dress for Success. They are celebrating their 15th year of ever-growing success.

Dress for Success is sort of a real-life fairytale.

Women walk in poor through the doors of the center in Portland and walk out like Cinderella. The fairy godmothers are Barb Attridge and Karen Fishel.

That may be too big a twist on the classic story, but Dress for Success has had remarkable success in turning around the lives of hundreds of women.

Now, it is time for some bragging about the project that Attridge and Fishel founded in 1999. A way to measure the progress is the annual fundraiser, a posh event planned for April 18 at the Portland Art Museum, featuring dinner, an auction and fashion show.

“We’ve come a long way in 15 years,” said Attridge, a resident of Lake Oswego. “We held our first fundraiser on the ninth floor of Meier & Frank. We charged $25 for a box lunch.”

Attridge and Fishel, a Portland resident, laughed when asked if they had ever envisioned such a grand setting for their fundraiser, but it is no fairytale. It has taken struggling women, including many in dire circumstances, and not only given them clothes to wear on their employment searches but prepared them for a better life in many ways.

“Our name is a bit misinforming,” Fishel said. “We really do help women in more ways than just dressing them.”

“To get ready for a job search they need much more than clothes,” Attridge said.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Lessons in makeup application are one of the many areas in which job applicants are guided by Dress for Success.

Dress for Success started as a simple idea. Fishel read an article about a project in New York City called Dress for Success that was helping women find jobs by dressing them up for job interviews.

“It’s my nature to help others, especially the ‘underdog,’” Fishel said. “The article matched all of my values and the way I like to do things.”

The article so intrigued Fishel that she brought it to the attention of her good friend, Attridge, who was a kindred spirit.

“I was a CPA, and I was looking for a more meaningful profession,” Attridge said.

The first Dress for Success outpost in Portland was just 900 square feet.

“We were thrilled to get it,” Fishel said. “We wondered if it was too big. I never thought that far ahead. It seemed huge.”

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - A shopping trip is always given to women who come to Dress for Success. Dressing right is still the foundation for what the organization provides.

The old DFS center seems like a sardine can compared to today’s 6,000-square-foot center on 1532 NE 37th Ave. in Portland, and it stuns people who come there for the first time.

“People expect a little clothes closet,” Fishel said. “Instead they get a large, beautiful area that is very warm and inviting.”

Dress for Success started evolving as soon as Fishel and Attridge opened the doors. They quickly saw that their original goal of providing new clothes was not large enough.

“To get them ready for a job search, they needed much more,” Attridge said, “although clothing is still our cornerstone. It’s very, very critical because it builds their self-esteem. Our mission is to help women living in poverty, so they can take care of themselves and their families.

“There is such a big change from the time they walk through the door. We want them not just to keep a job but to be successful and improve their lives.”

Dress for Success now offers workshops, job coaches, paycheck management training, child care, meals, basically creating an entire network of support.

“There is nothing like seeing the transition these women make,” Fishel said. “They walk in full of fear and lacking in confidence and they leave confident and assured.”

Many women walk in underdogs and walk out winners. The numbers reveal a big success story. Dress for Success sees 1,400 clients a year and has helped 17,000 women since the beginning.

Along the way there have been accolades, especially for Attridge, who serves as executive director for the organization. Fishel has to bring it up since Attridge is too modest, but Attridge received the Extraordinary Executive Director recognition during the annual Light a Fire Awards in November. Attridge has been extraordinarily successful at lining up supporters.

“It wouldn’t be nearly as successful if not for our community,” she said. “We have 200 volunteers who provide services, we have an incredible staff and board of directors and a fabulous group of dedicated individuals. And it keeps increasing.”

The biggest milestone of Dress for Success came when the Bank of America gave the organization a $200,000 Neighborhood Builder grant in 2012.

“That allowed us to open the Patricia Whiting Career Center,” Attridge said. “That grant took us to the next level.”

The days of Dress for Success being regarded as a little clothes closet were truly over.

“Last year, 2013, was a record year for us in many areas,” Fishel said.

“We helped 500 women get jobs last year,” Attridge said.

Maybe some day Fishel and Attridge will get down to writing a book of Dress for Success success stories. Or maybe an encyclopedia.

One of their success stories focused on a woman named Karen. She walked into the center as a jobless meth addict who had just had her children taken away from her. She went on to earn a college degree and start her own business.

“This place is very transformational,” Fishel said. “Women walk in 5 feet tall and walk out 10 feet tall.”

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