Empowering Women Through Apparel, Advice and Advocacy: The Wings for Success Story
The history of Wings for Success reads a bit like the children’s book, The Little Engine That Could. As a local organization run by a small paid staff and supported by hundreds of volunteers, we have nevertheless helped thousands of women in need overcome great personal obstacles, regain their confidence and achieve the extraordinary.
Our Humble Beginnings and Early Years
Inspired by a 1997 episode of Oprah and in response to the Welfare to Work initiative, a group of Chester County residents had a vision to help the women in their community return to work by providing them with work-appropriate clothing. These women, Cecily Getz, Kathy Smith Granahan, Beth Heft, Marianne Plucienik, and Laurie Todd, chose to make a difference in their community by gathering women’s clothing and added $600 in seed money—thus, Wings for Success was born.
The original Wings team contacted local social service agencies and job training programs that were already working with women transitioning to the workforce. Using their own vehicles, they transported clothing to these agencies to help women prepare for interviews and employment.
During that first year, they outfitted several dozen women, formed a Board of Directors, applied for 501(c)(3) status and with the help of the Chester County Commissioners, signed their first lease at 326 North Walnut Street in West Chester. Also during that first year, Wings held the first community clothing drive sponsored by West Chester University and Parkway Cleaners. By 1998, Wings for Success was incorporated, having already served 40 women.
By our second anniversary, we had already held several Professional Image Workshops and our first Job Seekers Workshop, during which Patricia Shultz of Shultz Associates of Exton offered interviewing tips. The Douty Foundation also provided us with our first grant that year.
By the turn of the century, Wings had quadrupled the number of women served and found itself in need of professional management. Our first fundraiser was held at the QVC Studios and shortly thereafter, we received our permanent 501(c)(3) designation.
Other significant milestones include moving our office to the current Frazer location and hiring our first Program Manager, Diane Mills, in 2008. In 2013, we submitted and received our first Standards of Excellence status with PANO (Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations), which verifies that we are a well-managed organization. In 2015, to better serve the southern half of Chester County, we opened our second office in Kennett Square and hired our second Program Manager, Ingrid Lis.
In our early days, we outfitted women primarily in professional clothing. With the recent move to more business-casual attire, we began filling our well-stocked closet with clothing and accessories appropriate for many types of employment including food service, medical, agriculture and more. In 2018, we began reaching out to women undergoing cancer treatment to provide clothing that could accommodate their changing sizes and body shapes.
Transforming Women—Both Inside and Out
When a woman walks into our office for the first time, she often arrives feeling unsure and reserved. She may be interviewing for a new position, beginning a new job, or already working, but without the means to purchase appropriate clothing. It is our mission to treat all who walk through our doors with dignity and respect.
During her styling appointment, a client is matched with a personal stylist who asks questions about her likes, dislikes and overall needs. The stylist then searches through our 20,000-item closet to select clothing and accessories specifically for that client. Our closets are stocked with sizes 0 through 5x and are appropriate for everyone – from teenagers to senior citizens.
It’s not unusual during these appointments for the women we serve to lower their guard and open up about their hopes and dreams for the future. We have witnessed tears of joy, tons of smiles and more than a few dances around the office as clients prepare to leave, juggling bags of complete outfits. In addition to providing apparel, we help our clients polish their resumes and practice interviewing skills. Everyone walks out the door with information and direction to other services they may need and with the understanding that our door is always open.
Powered by Our Donors and Volunteers
We couldn’t operate without the support of our gracious donors—individuals and businesses that do everything from stocking our closets and donating auction items to attending fundraising events and providing financial support. Financial support comes by way of one-time donations as well as foundation and organization grants that help us provide a place to serve our clients. No gift—large, small or in-between—ever goes unnoticed or unappreciated by the Wings for Success family.
Thanks to the generosity of our volunteers and donors, we’ve grown over the past 20 years. In 2018, we celebrated our 20th anniversary and over 11,000 women served. In 2019, we have continued our growth by moving to a new, larger location in Kennett Square and serving over 800 women a year.
Wings for Success Today
Led by Executive Director Jill Laufenberg, today Wings has four part-time employees and more than 120 dedicated and active volunteers. In 2019 alone, these volunteers donated more than 12,000 hours of service. Our Board of Directors takes on more than an advisory role. With various backgrounds and experiences, our Board works alongside our staff to keep Wings engaged, compliant and moving forward as we continue to serve the women in our community. Everyone in our organization from board members to staff to volunteers shares the same mission—to ensure that any woman who requires our services is welcomed and served.
We continue to find ourselves connecting to new communities of women who rely on us to provide them with work-appropriate clothing so that they can start or continue working while freeing up limited financial resources for necessities such as rent, food and childcare. We are the only organization in Chester County providing confidence and empowerment through apparel, advice and advocacy and we always do it without charging a fee.
As long as women continue to put their family’s needs above their own, we will serve them compassionately and support them in their goal to achieve autonomy, confidence and success.