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Career Gear

HPHeader01.jpgJohn Singletary shifts through a few racks of suits, looking for something that will catch his eye. Already dressed sharply in a beige suit, white collared shirt and red tie, he stops mid-rack when he sees something that is to his liking. Maintaining the swag and smoothness of a jazz player from the Duke Ellington era, he picks up a solid blue designer suit and wails, "Woo this one right here, it's sharp boy."

A few seconds after picking out his suit, the man attending to him suggests a light blue shirt with a matching striped tie. Singletary happily nods his head in agreement. Minutes later he is trying on everything in front of the mirror as his attendee measures his hem. He arrogantly but playfully adjusts his collar and glances a smile right back at himself.

"The mirror don't lie man," said Mr. Singletary, "I'll take it."

What seems like an ordinary occurrence in department stores and tailor shops across the city is in fact happening at an office located 36 floors high in the heart of financial district. Mr. Singletary is in the offices of Career Gear, a nonprofit organization that helps disadvantaged men find clothes for job interviews, as well as with job retention and advancement skills. Its motto is: "A suit -- a second chance."

The suits are all brand new, donated from companies such as Men's Wearhouse and Brooks Brothers. The organization also boasts a warehouse bigger than the men's department at Macy's Herald Square, with over 15,000 suits. "There is a misconception that Career Gear just gives out clothing," said Michael Obertacz, program director at the organization.

Career Gear works hand-in-hand with job development agencies, which help men who are unemployed, homeless, formerly incarcerated, or former substance abusers; these agencies help with career placement and job placement. Once set up with an interview, they are then given a referral to Career Gear.

Mr. Singletary, 57 from Brooklyn, was referred to Career Gear through Contract Employment Agencies, which works with his parole CEO. "I will never be stagnant again," said Mr. Singletary, when asked how Career Gear has altered his life; he was also referring to a rough patch he hit in his life in the '90s when he got involved in drugs that eventually led to other things and into jail.

When the men are successful on their interviews they are invited back to be part of the Professional Development series. The program is an evening workshop that meets once a week. Here the men learn valuable skills, such as financing and budgeting, how to deal with workplace conflicts, and how to build their resume, among others. For every workshop the men attend they obtain a voucher for another article of clothing, such as a shirt, shoes, or tie. After 6 months in the retention program they get a voucher for a brand new suit. The idea behind it is to build a wardrobe as you build workplace skills.

Another mission of the company is to help the men's families and communities as you help the men themselves. Giving the men a fresh start helps them be better fathers and help their families by paying child support payments, bringing income into the family, and bringing food onto the table. They become more responsible adults and help their community, which in turn makes New York a better place.

William Simms, 68 from Brooklyn, found Career Gear through the V.A. Hospital and left retirement to work at the organization. He often gets letters back from men he has helped telling him thank you for helping them get the job. "I Love it here," said Mr. Simms, "I'll be here as long as possible."

Career Gear was started in 1999 by Gary L. Field. Prior to Career Gear, Mr. Field was a substance abuser, almost homeless, and down on his luck. With nothing but two nickels to rub together, he decided it was time for a change. He sobered up and went back to school, earning his master's in social work. He started Career Gear because he found that when he was down on his luck he couldn't find any support. He is not only the founder but also one of the clients.

Since its beginnings, Career Gear has grown to eight affiliate locations in major cities across the U.S. Last year alone, the New York location suited 2,018 men. "These men have worked their tails off," said Mr. Obertacz. "Some of these men were addicted to crack, living off the street, homeless. Now they have nice, 9-to-5 full-time jobs with benefits. They are also saving money with retirement accounts and supporting their kids. The suits we provide just give these men that extra boost of confidence a man gets when he puts on a suit."

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