The dapper wears, given for free by MenzFit to men in need, is a confidence booster for those coming home from prison.
Nothing profound happened 15 years ago that pushed Ms. Rhonda E. Willingham, a certified image consultant and public relations specialist, to start MenzFit, a nonprofit organization offering disadvantaged men, many of them returning citizens, slightly-used interview appropriate clothing and skills training. Ms. Willingham was simply volunteering at an organization that offered similar services to women, saw a need for men to have access to quality used clothing and professional development opportunities, and created an institution that, as of today, has served more than 6,000 individuals in Washington D.C., where the organization was founded, and Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia, roughly 1,100 men have been serviced and nearly 50 percent remain employed, Ms. Willingham told me today after a press conference attended by the Mayor which celebrated the organization’s new Center City office space on the 13th floor at 1500 Walnut Street.
“This is awesome. It’s like a high-end department store,” Mayor Jim Kenney said, referring to the layout of the space, whose walls were decorated with quality suits and shoes.
The dapper wears, given for free to men in need, is a confidence booster for those coming home from prison who are seeking employment, the Mayor said. An example of that truth was in the room as Mayor Kenney spoke. Mr. Vernon Ray, a young black man who Ms. Willingham characterized as her biggest success story, told Techbook Online that when he came home from prison in 2008, his “confidence was shot.” But after being referred to MenzFit and obtaining a suit, shoes, shirt and tie, he acquired the confidence needed to enter the job market.
“When you come in here and throw the suit on, with the shirt and tie, you can’t stay out of the mirror,” Mr. Ray said smiling, as a gentleman, just feet away in a dressing room, tried on clothing for his upcoming interview.
Mr. Ray remembers vividly the day he was fitted for a suit – it felt like a loved one dressing him, he said – and more so, his first job interview. Though he didn’t get hired by the first employer he sought out, he did, with the support system offered by MenzFit, eventually obtain employment as a subcontractor cleaning a SEPTA Regional Rail train. He was quickly promoted to supervisor, which came with a company vehicle he could take home, and now he’s the Principal of Creative Minds Productions, a photography business.
“I came in for the free suit and shoes; I didn’t think I would get as much as I would from MenzFit. I fell in love with the process. It’s a blessing to have had the opportunity to go through the program,” Mr. Ray, who describes himself as content creator and who smiles often, told me in an exclusive interview.
While Mr. Ray and I spoke near the coffee and snacks, Mr. Bill Shipp, the Vice President of Business Development at Wells Fargo and the Board chairman for MenzFit, approached us. Mr. Ray put his arm around the neck of Mr. Shipp and called him a genuine person, someone who does what he says. From the body language of Mr. Ray, it was clear that more than just a professional relationship existed between the two. There appeared to be a dynamic of genuine friendship and mutual respect, and it was evident that Mr. Shipp had greatly impacted the life of Mr. Ray, who’s currently working with MyNewPhilly.com, a startup news organization specializing in short-form video.
But Mr. Shipp, dressed neatly in a pinstriped suit, isn’t simply a life changer with a fancy for altruism. He, too, despite being a successful businessman, has had his life changed by engaging the men who seek assistance from MenzFit.
“I’ve learned over the course of my activity with MenzFit that no man is better than another man,” Mr. Shipp said, as Ms. Willingham stood inches away from us picking out a tie for her client.
Mr. Shipp also learned that returning citizens, who he’s spent many weekends with listening to their stories, are more than their label.
“They’re funny, smart, generous, and kind to animals… they’re really similar to us,” he said.
As a member of the MenzFit board, Mr. Shipp, like Ms. Willingham, wants to see the organization, that’ll soon receive a grant from the Office of Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, expand into other U.S. cities.
An expansion of MenzFit would, in the words of Mr. Ray, give more men “the first step to their next step.”
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