From the Rubble of Dreams: Resilience to Be Reborn

At 5:50 AM on Feb 2, 2020, flames leapt from the 26,000 square foot building of a non-profit that provided training and work attire to over 105,000 job seekers in Orange County, CA, in their first 30 years.

Within hours, the four-alarm fire completely destroyed everything Working Wardrobes had:

  • a large donation center with racks, bins, and boxes filled with all manner of clothing, accessories, shoes, as well as housewares, office and cleaning supplies;
  • a wardrobing center with quality clothing for men and women in a department-like setting;
  • the career center with computer labs for clients to research and apply for jobs online, training rooms, and an IT lab; as well as the VetNet teams and programs for veterans, seniors, and client services;
  • the corporate office for the entire operations of Working Wardrobes and its 38 employees turned to ashes.

All gone, just as Working Wardrobes was preparing for its 30th anniversary.

Yet while all physical assets had turned to cinders, founder and CEO Jerri Rosen was devastated but determined. “We must rebuild so we can fulfill our purpose of helping, men, women, young adults and veterans overcome difficult challenges so that can achieve the dignity of work,” insisted Rosen in an interview shortly after the fire.

Within hours of the fire, the CEO of Goodwill of Orange County donated space in their warehouse and donations. Then hundreds of volunteers called and donations came in. My brothers and I volunteered to sort clothes hanging on racks. Others went to work locating office supplies and computers. On that particular Friday, all workers crammed into a room for lunch provided by Bracken’s Kitchen. With my interest in leadership and resilience, I watched with admiration as Jerri called out every employee who was there and the volunteers she knew, acknowledging their services. Brilliant. Empathetic. Positive.

One month later, Covid-19 hit. A double whammy. Jerri had to lay off most of the staff.

What would you do if your life’s work vanished? Is it possible to grow through such challenges? I needed to know her secret sauce. Here are her lessons.

Build on your strength and core competencies. Turn the page. There is always a new beginning.

More than 30 years ago, Jerri experienced a very challenging divorce that prompted her to get busy. She opened her own marketing and advertising business and more. When she heard of a store owner in the Carolinas that provided clothing for re-entry women, Jerri decided she could start something similar in Orange County, CA, as a sideline. A talented wordsmith, Jerri crafted a strategic plan called "The Success Suit" and the word quickly took off. What started as a singular one-day event of makeovers for women quickly became a multi-year experience that included a skills assessment designed to help women build confidence and belief in their abilities. Six years later, Working Wardrobes became a 501-3C with Jerri at the helm. It would be another six years before she closed her agency to devote full time to the non-profit. “I spent almost every single Saturday for twelve years meeting the donors and talking about what we were doing. That's how I built the organization. People thought they were coming to donate their clothes. But they quickly became knocked out with what we were really doing with their clothing donations, how fun it is, and what an incredible experience it is to help someone change his/her life.”

Think creatively and never be afraid to ask for help.

Jerri realized that, when people contribute to something that feeds their heart, they become even more engaged. She’s never stopped asking for help. One of her major partners is the National Human Resource Association. HR volunteers not only help with skills assessment but also with how to put transferable skills to work when applying for specific jobs.

An attorney approached her wanting to help men, but he knew men don't donate clothing the same way women do. “He told me he wanted to go to the bar association and hold a suit drive, calling it Lawsuits.” Charmed by his sense of humor, she invited Norm Rodich to join the board—and in that first year, Rodich got Men’s Wearhouse to become a primary donor of clothing.

Honor your network and continually develop it.

With Covid-19 currently keeping most people homebound, loneliness is a significant mental-health issue that impacts resilience. Thankfully, virtual systems like Zoom and Facetime can put people together. But what if one has not built a network? From the very beginning, Jerri has nurtured her network of friends. For over thirty years, she turned volunteers into trusted family/friends and advocates. “Volunteers are golden,” Jerri insists, “and I never miss an opportunity to let people know how amazing and precious they are.”

Stay endlessly curious.

"Requisite variety" is a term from biology, which basically means the organism with the greatest number of ways to respond to a situation is the one that will survive.  It’s not the strongest, the biggest, or the smartest. Rather, it’s the organism that can find multiple options. For Jerri, her curiosity has her looking at possibilities for Working Wardrobes that she has never considered.

Today, in the Covid-19 world, Jerri immediately became curious as to how the virtual world could supplant the services of Working Wardrobes. The non-profit has launched the Virtual Volunteer Center to enable generous volunteers to change lives . . . virtually! What a convenient and safe way to give back in these turbulent times. Jerri says, “We're currently on the lookout for virtual job coaches, technology professionals, client advocates, professional networkers, mental and physical health guides, or anyone who brings unique experience to help our clients become workforce ready and live happy, healthy, productive, and self-sufficient lives. Your expertise will be available online so everyone can connect from the convenience and safety of their homes.”

There’s so much more to Jerri and the Working Wardrobes story. Check out the website at I believe, like me, you will be awed by what one woman can do with her core competencies and with creativity, a willingness to ask for help, and endless curiosity about what might be next. She wasted no time on self-pity, anger, or regret. Rather, by her belief in the dignity of a paycheck and a focus on her purpose, Jerri has crafted a resilient life and organization—one that will survive if and when she decides to move into her next page of life.












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