One Saturday, Lisa Geraci Rigoni and her daughter, Marinna, were helping out at Women Giving Back’s sterling boutique—a warehouse full of clothes, shoes and accessories ingenuously displayed as in an every-day discount department store. (Clothes are available to women and children at no cost but only via referral from agencies serving the needy.)
“Marinna got very excited because she saw a friend of hers from her class in line," Lisa says. "When they got to the front, the girls gave each other a big hug.”
Lisa and the mom glanced at each other cautiously; they knew why the pair had come, though the girls were oblivious. The daughter needed a winter coat.
“Marinna chirped, ‘I know where they are; can I take her?’ so I said, ‘Yes,’ and they bounced off. From that point on," Lisa says, "I knew I was 100% committed to Women Giving Back. The items we donate don’t go to nameless, faceless people. They are women from our own community. On Tuesday, I was teaching this little girl her first-grade math, and Saturday she was there with her mom for a coat.”
It’s a story told and retold hundreds of times in any given month. WGB’s executive director, Nicole Morris, says more than 9,000 women and children were served with quality clothing from WGB working with more than 200 homeless, faith-based and even law enforcement organizations. Referrals from the latter are on the rise due to the emergence of human trafficking as a local issue. The Loudoun public school system says 2,500 of the county’s students are homeless. WGB also helps during humanitarian crises, shipping clothes to Haiti after the hurricane and to Jordan for Syrian refugees.
In the face of all that need, local women have opened their hearts and closets. Even by IRS standards, WGB’s boutique houses $2 million in inventory. More importantly, Nicole says, “It's quality clothing—some with designer labels and many still bearing new tags!”
Every photo taken for this article features clothes, shoes, jewelry, scarves and purses all literally plucked “off the rack” by their wearers the morning of our impromptu fashion show.
Teen volunteers exercise both compassion and fashion sense in helping to style WGB clients and work alongside workforce professionals who help women “dress for success” and that all-important job interview. There’s even a standing volunteer job description for “personal shopper,” something 13-year-old Lindsay Fox says she enjoys way more than sorting clothes. She likes helping people look and feel good in what they wear. And that, as it turns out, is WGB’s true “value add” for women in need: the care and concern with which they’re treated.
Inside the door of Women Giving Back’s Sterling boutique is a sign quoting Proverbs 31:25. “She is clothed in strength and dignity.” It’s why WGB volunteers say what they offer isn’t so much clothes as confidence.
The major effect of life’s setbacks to women often is the blow their confidence takes in having to ask for help, even though a reversal of fortune can happen to anyone.
“We have seen people who have had a health issue, and they get backed up on bills and lose their house. We’ve seen one-income households that lose their job. We might see families that have been separated because one of their members got deported, and they were the only breadwinner of the house. A lot of times, it is domestic violence victims who may have fled their homes with the clothes on their back.”
Nicole says that women sometimes drive up to the store and sit in their car crying, unable to get out. “But when they come in and are treated with so much respect, they tell us it was completely different than what they were expecting. It brings a little bit of normalcy back into their lives when they get to come and shop here."
Adding to the aura of a true retail experience, Bombas just donated 1,500 pairs of new socks from a special line made with the homeless community in mind that is odor resistant, stays drier and doesn’t have to be washed as often. California retailer Isabelle ships maternity clothes whenever they run low. Hue supplies socks, leggings and accessories. T.J. Maxx donates seasonal items like Halloween costumes and backpacks on top of funding from the TJX Foundation. Still in short supply is new underwear, so finding retail partners to help with those, cosmetics, toiletries and feminine hygiene products would be a boon.
As Nicole pauses to try to think of any other ongoing needs, she's a little transported by giggles and exclamations over each model’s next outfit as volunteers prepare for their moment in the spotlight.
“Normally when women come here for the first time, they gravitate towards the purses because every woman wants a nice purse," she says. "When they find a designer bag, they just beam. I was wrapping up a Coach purse for a lady who said, ‘No, no. I’m going to carry that out!’ It is so much fun to see them so happy.”