If you didn’t know any better, you might think you were stepping inside a trendy new downtown boutique.
Plush pillows and stools dot the floor, accented wood paneling lines the walls, a simple chandelier hangs from the ceiling above a glass jewelry counter, designer suits and handbags sit along shelves and dangle from hangers.
While you do need an appointment to shop at the store, customers at the Career Closet at the White Plains Education and Training Center at 303 Quarropas St. won’t need to drop thousands of dollars to walk out with an outfit. The Career Closet is filled with new or gently used business attire and accessories, all of which have been donated by corporations and individuals. The professional garb is offered free of charge to job hunters in need — hunters like Kacey Torpey.
“I came from a hard situation, so I really didn’t have anything,” said Torpey, who in 2016 was charged by Harrison police with third-degree criminal sale of cocaine as part of a broader narcotics investigation.
Hope for a better future led her to the Education and Training Center, where she decided to pursue her passion for hospitality and enroll in the center’s hotel operations curriculum.
While her career dreams involve working behind the scenes at the Ritz Carlton, Torpey said her former wardrobe didn’t exactly fit the part. “I had absolutely nothing,” she said, adding that her fanciest pair of footwear was high-heeled stilettos that were much too tall for the workplace. “I had to start my life over.”
For Torpey, that’s where the Career Closet came in.
“It was really great,” she said of her recent shopping trip at the Career Closet. “They picked out a lot of things for me to try on and I could pick what I wanted.”
Torpey tried on an array of dresses, tops and pants. She walked out with a blouse, a pair of comfortable yet fashionable shoes for work, a skirt and a blazer, each of which were “really cute,” she said.
“It was extremely helpful for me,” said Torpey, who has a month left until she completes her curriculum and begins her interview process. “I feel good knowing I have something really nice to wear. It makes me feel more confident.”
Run by the city of White Plains, the Career Closet allows shoppers to take home one full outfit, complete with accessories, for their upcoming job interviews.
“Normally we see individuals going back into the workforce following difficult circumstances,” said Patti Staffiero, a site director for the Education and Training Center who also works with the White Plains Youth Bureau. “They need that boost to get back into the workforce.”
While the old adage may say dress for the job you want, not the job you have, that’s not always possible for many who are attempting to rebuild their lives. “You might not have the money to do that,” Staffiero said. “So many people don’t have that first paycheck yet to be able to get their outfits.”
If those interviewers ultimately land the job they applied for, they can return to the Career Closet and take home five additional outfits to kick-start their wardrobe.
“The point of that is to allow them to not have that anxiety and the pressure of, I have this great new job, now I have to worry about what I’m going to wear,” said Linda Puoplo, White Plains deputy commissioner of planning.
Yascara Maldonado, site coordinator for the center and the resident personal shopper for those who visit the Career Closet, can help match job seekers with their perfect interviewing outfit. After learning a bit about the applicant, the job he or she is applying for and the applicant’s clothing size, Maldonado selects a variety of outfits and accessories.
“People are always shocked like, ‘I can keep these?’ And we say, ‘Of course, these are yours,’” said Staffiero.
Puoplo said the interior of the Career Closet was designed to make shoppers feel as though they are visiting an actual retail establishment.
“People come in here with the excitement and the feeling of, I’m starting a new life,” she said. “They’re typically coming from challenged backgrounds, and the goal with this was to create something that builds that dignity and builds that excitement and builds that hope of a new life and a new career.”
It’s more than just the store’s decor that has been curated to give the Career Closet the feeling of an upscale shop. Each item sports a tag with the store’s logo and clothing selected by shoppers is placed inside Career Closet tote bags.
“You see the difference in the outcome of people when they feel empowered versus just being given a handout,” Staffiero said. “People want to feel dignity.”
The Career Closet is just one of many resources available at the 13,500-square-foot Education and Training Center, a public-private partnership that opened in March 2016.
“We’re no longer in our infancy, but we’re maybe at the toddler stage,” Puoplo said with a laugh. “We’re evolving and we’re learning a lot of really important lessons and are always improving our programming.”
Located on the main floor of The Prelude, a $42 million affordable housing development that is the first phase of a redeveloped downtown public housing campus at South Lexington Avenue and Quarropas Street, the center provides a variety of workforce development programs for adults. They include workshops, industry-specific training programs, computer training, life skills development and career navigation assistance.
“We go out into the community and find out where the demand is from employers, then we work with them as partners to have programs here that will train people for the jobs that are out there,” said White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach.
Training curricula include a culinary program conducted in the center’s full commercial kitchen; medical training courses in home health care and phlebotomy and administrative assistance and entrepreneurship courses. Technology courses, such as workshops on Microsoft Office and troubleshooting hardware problems, are held in a computer lab equipped with Apple iMacs.
“We want to build a vibrant economy, we want to retain our businesses and we want to attract new businesses,” Puoplo said. “One of the biggest reasons companies move is the workforce isn’t there, so to be able to provide a workforce development institution like this and bring in the partners that are the experts in training makes sense. It makes all the sense in the world.”
The Education and Training Center recently launched an IT support and network security course in partnership with Per Scholas, a nonprofit that provides free training to unemployed adults who hope to become IT professionals.
“We don’t try to invent anything ourselves,” Roach said. “We try to find someone who’s doing something and work with them.”
Puoplo said partnering with employers, an initiative the center began exploring in 2017, “is a priority for us” in the future.
Roach also floated the possibility of employers that move into White Plains using the space for their own training sessions or workshops. “All these things become something you can pitch to corporations when they’re thinking about coming here,” he said.