When Minnie Caldwell was released from the Hillsborough Correctional Facility in January, she had nothing. She had no money, no job and nothing to wear as she looked for work.
"I was incarcerated for 18 years," says Caldwell, 59, a petite woman with an easy smile. "I was incarcerated so long, everything I had was gone, even my confidence."
Then Caldwell connected with Katie McGill, executive director of Dress for Success, who offers an employment and life skills workshop at the prison.
After her release, Caldwell turned to Dress for Success for help.
The international nonprofit organization provides professional clothing, career development tools and a network of support to struggling women.
On a recent afternoon, Caldwell flipped through racks of nearly new Ann Klein suits, Talbots blouses, pumps, purses and accessories, in search of the perfect interview outfit.
With help from a personal shopper, she settled on a beige pantsuit, a gold and black blouse, black shoes and a purse. And it was all free.
When she checked herself out in front of the full-length mirror, Caldwell couldn't contain her excitement.
"Oh, my goodness, I love this," she said, beaming and hugging her personal shopper, Sharon Glenn. "This is so elegant. I feel like a real person again; like a lady. I don't feel like I walked out of prison. I know I can be a success (in a suit like this)."
Dress for Success has teamed up with Dressbarn for the ninth annual "Send One Suit Weekend," collecting career clothes for women who are entering the workforce.
"You see these women come in with their head down, no confidence," McGill says. "But when they put on that suit and look at themselves for the first time, their faces light up. They transform."
Clients find themselves at Dress for Success for a variety of reasons - they've been released from prison, were homeless, an illness sidetracked them or the family breadwinner has left them. They are referred to Dress for Success from more than 100 agencies, including The Centre for Women, Workforce, Salvation Army, Metropolitan Ministries and prison programs.
Dress for Success provides each woman with two suits while she looks for work. If she lands the job, she can receive a week's worth of separates.
Clients also can get makeup, hygiene products and a coupon for a free haircut and manicure from a local beautician school.
Wendi Harris served five years in prison. While finishing her last year of incarceration, she took part in an employment workshop that featured a mock interview and a fashion show by Dress for Success. When Harris was released in 2009, she went to Dress for Success and got the same blue suit she wore in the fashion show.
"It's an unbelievable feeling when you know you can't afford an outfit to look for a job and someone helps you get one," says Harris, 46, of Carrollwood, who serves as a client representative for Dress for Success, sharing her story with other women transitioning back into society. "It's a real blessing in your life to get a suit like this. If you have some appropriate clothing you no longer wear, please bring it in. There will be some very grateful hearts."
According to Dressbarn, more than 43,000 gently worn clothes were donated during last year's drive, and they were distributed to more than 70 Dress for Success affiliates throughout the United States.
How you can help
Send One Suit (SOS) weekend to benefit Dress for Success
WHEN: Thursday through Feb. 27
WHAT: Donate new and gently used work attire, shoes and accessories, including pantyhose, purses, jewelry and new makeup.
WHERE: Donations can be dropped off at any Dressbarn location.
NOTE: There is a particular need for plus-size clothing, large-size shoes and purses.
For a list of Dressbarn locations, go to www.dressbarn.com/locator.