Nonprofit Suited to Succeed fights to stay open with fundraising campaign

When Joy Sheppard was searching for employment in 2000, she knew she had all the skills to be communications operator for a downtown hotel. She just didn't have the right wardrobe.

With the help of Suited to Succeed, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that provides clothing and professional development to women looking to gain employment,Sheppard found a new business suit and ultimately landed a new job.

But the nonprofit, which has been serving women like Sheppard for 20 years, is now fighting to stay afloat with an $88,000 fundraising effort.

"We are at the point that we may have to close the doors," said board chair Evelyn Gaines. "We have to worry whether or not we can pay the rent."

Suited to Succeed faced elevated rent and operating costs when it moved to 19 E. Fayette St. in September, Gaines said. She said she has spent $11,000 of her own money to keep the nonprofit running for the past year and a half.

"If there wasn't a need, I would simply close it," Gaines said. "But we dress 200 women a month."

At the new location, the nonprofit pays $2,700 a month in rent for its boutique and office space, up from $2,200 at its previous spot, 219 and 225 E. Redwood St. (Until 2013, the organization paid $225 to rent the basement of the former Bank of America building at 10 Light St.)

The nonprofit moved from its Redwood Street location, Gaines said, because the building's owner, Gordon Feinblatt LLC, imposed restrictions that made it difficult to operate.

"They started putting requirements on us," she said. "We were placed in a situation to move."

Gaines said that the window of time for people to drop off clothing was drastically reduced to two hours.

"They didn't want donations before 2 p.m. Our office closed at 3 p.m. The boutique closed at 4 p.m.," Gaines said.

Clients of Suited to Succeed were also required to be escorted from the boutique to the operating offices, which created additional chaos, according to Gaines.

"We started getting push-back," she said. "It was hard to operate with those restrictions. When it came down to renewing the lease, I didn't think it would be a good location."

Barry Rosen, chairman of Gordon Feinblatt LLC, said he was unaware of "any particular restrictions" on Suited to Succeed.

"We had no problems with anything they wanted to do in the retail space," he said.

Rosen said Suited to Success likely ran into problems because there was not enough storage room for the boutique, which required them to have additional space in another floor.

"We really do wish them the best of success," Rosen added.

Although Gaines said she's pleased with Suited to Succeed's current location, the fact that the organization's boutique is now located on the second floor of its building with no outside signage has created its own set of problems.

"It's kind of hard for them to find us," Gaines said of clients and shoppers. "Boutique activity has died off."

Gaines wants to have $88,000 raised by the end of June.

"It will allow us to have some operating expenses covered until we get some grants," she said. "We've always been able to get money from sales from the boutique. But with this business model, we're finding that it's no longer able to cover our monthly operating expenses. We agreed that we need to take Suited to Succeed to another level."

That means applying grants and pursing corporate sponsorship — two things that the organization has not done in the past.

"That's why we launched the campaign where we're reaching out for help," Gaines said. "We need to find organizations or whomever can help keep the doors open for the women we serve."

Sheppard thinks that the loss of Suited to Succeed will be devastating to Baltimore.

"It would have a substantial impact," she said.

Sheppard loved her experience at Suited to Succeed so much that she started volunteering for the organization in 2002. Four years ago she was hired full-time and is now assistant manager of the boutique.

"When you shop there you get a great buy, and you are also helping women in need," she said. "We have suited thousands of women through the program. It's a wonderful organization."

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