As the new executive director for Bloom, the new moniker for the 17-year-old, San Rafael-based nonprofit Image for Success, Chen is spearheading an organization that has a direct, tangible impact on people’s lives at a critical moment. Bloom provides free wardrobes and life skills training to men, women and families transitioning to a life of self-reliance and looking for a job, whether it’s a person just released from prison, someone recovering from substance abuse or a victim of domestic abuse seeking independence.
Giving a boost to people at such a critical moment in their lives can provide quite an emotional jolt – hence Chen’s need for the occasional tissue. After she first declined interest in the role of Bloom’s new executive director, the recruiter emailed Chen a bevy of testimonials and video clips from Bloom clients.
“After drying my tears, I called him back and said I was interested,” Chen says with a laugh.
And a few days into her new role earlier this month, Chen was having one of those overwhelming, frustrating moments we all have when we start a new job, struggling a bit with logistics and navigating files. Then she joined her Bloom team at an event at Bahia Vista Elementary School to give out shoes to pre-K students at the school who needed them.
Located at 1557 Fourth Street in downtown San Rafael, Bloom runs a retail store that accepts donated clothing. They also take a lot of that clothing to the clients that are referred to them through a variety of social services agencies like Adopt a Family of Marin, Center for Domestic Peace, Community Action Marin and the Marin Employment Connection, as well as school administrators, clergy and teachers.
“One of the things that really touches me is that this isn’t Salvation Army or Goodwill-type clothing,” says Chen, who had been volunteering for the similar but female-focused Dress for Success in recent years. “This organization is trying to get functional wardrobes for people to improve their self-esteem, looking for a job and a situation that will improve the conditions of their lives.”
Clients can come back to Bloom every season, and the organization’s volunteer dressers are trained to deliver a “Nordstroms-like experience,” Chen says. “They act as personal shoppers for their clients. And those clients feel really respected, which is part of our mission. It’s not just about clothes.
Bloom has distinct programs for men, women and children, but often serves entire families when one or both parents are in the midst of transition. “It’s about helping them build self reliance and not fall backwards,” Chen says.
Image for Success was founded in 1999 by Barbara Lee, after President Clinton established the welfare-to-work program and Lee found out that one San Rafael agency had 40 women ready to go to work but didn’t have any business clothes. Prior to Image for Success’ creation, Cal Works (a welfare-to-work program) had provided each of their clients with vouchers to shop at a local discount store. But Lee wanted to create a more positive and personalized shopping experience for these women who were struggling to meet the serious challenges in their lives.
Over the years, the program grew, expanding to include men in 2005, and then relocated to Fourth Street in 2007, allowing the organization to open a consignment store. In 2011, bolstered by revenue from that store, Image for Success hit a milestone of having served 10,000 clients. The organization continued to expand on its partnerships with referring agencies, and had served more than 15,000 clients by the end of 2015. They’ve helped more than 1,500 Marin residents to date in 2016.
In addition to the clothing and wardrobe consulting, Bloom has been providing financial literacy classes for the past three years, often conducted at places where clients are living, to “take the transportation barrier out of the equation,” Chen says.
Chen’s arrival comes just on the heels of the rebranding from Image for Success to Bloom. “They had been confused with Dress for Success for years, and they wanted people to know that we focus are men women and children,” she says. “The new name also reflects the growth of the organization, with the inclusion of kids and the addition of the financial literacy piece. The new name encompasses all that.”
“Bloom” also signifies how they want the client’s experience to be when they walk in the door – “a catered special day,” Chen says.