When Shara Mondy was traveling as a motivational speaker and board member for Dress for Success, the nonprofit group that provides clothes and career help to disadvantaged women, she kept getting the same question over and over again. "People would always ask, 'My husband has suits he doesn't wear anymore. Where can I donate those?'" Mondy says. "I'd have to apologize and tell them we only help women." When she returned home to Jacksonville, Florida, Mondy tried to find programs that provide men the same kind of fresh start and was shocked to find that there weren't any.
That didn't seem fair to her. Having seen women totally turn their lives around while working with Dress for Success, Mondy wanted to give men similar opportunities. So she settled down to work on a business plan for her own organization that would give men the tools they need to become self-sufficient and successful, starting with a new suit. Although Mondy had never written a grant proposal before, she outlined her vision and submitted her plan to the city of Jacksonville. The city granted Mondy $15,000 in start-up funds, and in 2004 Suited for Success was born.
"At first I just asked my male friends to donate their own gently used suits and work clothes," she says. "Then they mentioned it to their buddies and suddenly people were calling and e-mailing me to say, 'Hey, I want to help out too.'" When she had collected about 25 suits, Mondy opened her doors to clients, who found her through a local church and agencies that provide support services to ex-offenders and homeless men.
"My guys get a complete outfit: suit, shirt, tie, socks, T-shirt, underwear, the works," Mondy says. But her vision expanded quickly. "I also wanted to make sure these men were the best candidates for the positions they were applying for," she says. Because she has worked for years as a personal and professional development consultant, Mondy had the skills to coach her new nonprofit clients, too. With the help of some of her friends, she began editing the men's resumes, conducting mock interviews, and helping them with job searches.
Driven by her desire to give struggling young men a chance, Mondy also started offering free workshops and mentoring opportunities. "Seventy to 80 percent of my clients are ex- offenders," she says. "You can't lock a man up and then expect him to change if you don't teach him how to find a job and be a productive citizen when he comes out." So Mondy brought in male speakers -- volunteers from 100 Black Men of Jacksonville, a leadership program to offer classes on how to create a savings plan, balance a checkbook, learn fathering skills, and address relationship issues.
Mondy's impact on the Jacksonville community has been dramatic. "When I met Shara I was jobless, homeless, and very depressed," says Nathaniel Hendley. "She gave me a suit and encouraged me to reach for higher goals." Five years after his first meeting with Mondy, Hendley is a prevention coordinator with the Northeast Florida AIDS Network and also serves as a board member for the Duval County Health Department.
Suited for Success now serves more than 200 clients each month with the help of a small but dedicated team of volunteers and has three locations in the Jacksonville area. This year Mondy is even introducing a signature tie with the help of a local neckwear company and sitcom actor Tommy Ford. Her clients will sell the ties and receive a portion of the sales, which will help them earn income and network at the same time.
Mondy doesn't see an end to the number of men Suited for Success can reach or the services and support she can provide. "The suit is definitely the symbol of the program," she says. "But our mission is to help men be healthy, happy, and successful in every area of their lives."
Do you know a woman like Shara Mondy who goes the extra mile for a worthy cause? LHJ and WE Volunteer are still looking for outstanding volunteers for our WE Do Good Awards. Nominate your amazing lady at wevolunteer.tv today.
This Month's Challenge: Participate in the Men's Wearhouse National Suit Drive. This retail chain will accept gently used men's professional clothing items in exchange for a 10-percent-off thank-you coupon. Or go local and organize a men's clothing and shoe drive in your neighborhood, then donate the items you collect to a shelter or group in your area.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2010.