The Karma of Clothing Story

By Mary Lou Andre
Founder & President
The Dressing Well Charitable Foundation

In 2013, I was asked to serve as the mistress of ceremonies for the first annual Needham Community Council fashion show featuring clothing and accessories from the Council’s popular retail thrift store. I immediately said yes and looked forward to learning more about the Council, its programs and its people. After all, Needham is my home town and I have always believed in the power of giving back, especially when the fit is this perfect.

While I expected the event would be fun and inspirational while raising money for a good cause, what I didn’t anticipate was to be so taken with the passion and integrity of the Council’s staff and volunteers. I also did not expect to see such an eclectic and well-curated display of fashion in the center of Needham. Chanel and Gucci next to LL Bean and the Gap. Talbots and Bloomingdales parading down the runway together. Many different brands and retailers being worn on an equally diverse mix of town leaders and influencers who served as models on this wonderful evening. The event coordinators certainly knew what they were doing too. Their ability to dress over 30 volunteer models as professionally as many higher-end retail shows we’ve been involved with proved to me that the Council really had something special going on. I continued to host the show for three more years. It remains one of my all-time favorite fashion events.

Connecting the Dots

The moment I saw the first model walk down the runway, I saw a clear connection between our business and clients and the beautiful clothes and accessories I saw coming down the aisle. We immediately added the Council as one of our preferred donation resources and began spreading the word. Extra bonus: the Council made it easy to donate. Their donation center is open 6 days a week and you can drop things off without an appointment and grab a donation slip on your way out the door. Easy peasy. Our clients (and consultants!) loved that.

At around this same time, I had been considering starting a Foundation to run alongside our core business. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we had a Foundation that could eventually support some type of clothing collaborative for people in need that could leverage what the Council was already doing so well: providing high-quality clothing at a very affordable price to the public, while using the money generated to fund important no-fee services in our town (including the Council’s Food Pantry, ESL tutoring services, medical equipment loans, transportation assistance, Child Assault Prevention Program and general outreach to people in need throughout our home town of Needham). I started to map things out in my head, on paper and yes, in the shower – where most of my best ideas are launched!

Foundation First

The Foundation became a reality in December 2016. With the blessing of our team, business advisors and a small group of friends gathered for our annual holiday celebration, I made a commitment to mark the 25th anniversary of our firm on April 1, 2017 by launching The Dressing Well Charitable Foundation. I got to work in early January of 2017 with my long-term business attorney, friend, and mentor Eleanor Uddo and began filing all the necessary paperwork with the state and creating the logo and blueprint for the idea with our exceptional graphic designer and web manager Sabina Grady.

I assembled a small board to help steer our efforts and reached out to a reliable group of supporters who had always had a keen interest in our non-profit work with a seed money ask. The seed ask exceeded the goals we set by almost 100 percent. This early financial support gave us the confidence to move forward with gusto – announcing the Foundation to our clients and online community as we celebrated our 25th firm anniversary on April 1st and partnering with our good friends at The Container Store to host an online fundraiser that generated another round of funds. I continued to fundraise throughout the spring and fall of 2017, speaking to a handful of women’s groups in exchange for donations. Our 2017 grants included funding the 15th anniversary of Dress for Success Boston, Belle of the Ball, the MS Society Annual Fashion Plates Luncheon and Coats for Kids.

Next Stops: The Needham Community Council & Family Promise Metro West

In November of 2017, I paid a visit to Sandy Robinson and Debbie Winnick, the Executive Director and Director of Development at the Needham Community Council. I laid out the vision for a clothing collaborative at the Council and told them I’d be back in touch in January if our Board thought it was as viable as the three of us did. At our board meeting in December every member present gave the idea a big thumbs up. To my delight, our long-term financial planner and good friend Dianne Webster actually named the effort. The Karma of Clothing Project was born.

Before I went back to share the exciting news with Sandy and Debbie, I reached out to Family Promise MetroWest, a shelter in nearby Natick that was partnered with my church doing amazing, sustainable work with homeless families. A two-hour meeting at Family Promise with Executive Director Sue Crossley and her team cemented our first referral agency relationship. We now had it all. A program location with awesome clothes, clients, and money to fund the program.

Official Launch & A Home of Our Own

With a mission statement and program overview in hand, Sandy, Debbie and Amanda Elkin, Steps for Success Coordinator at Family Promise, met at Council on January 30th, 2018. The conversation was exciting, lively and action-oriented. By the time it was over, we had our first Karma Saturday scheduled for February 8th. 

Myself and long-term Council volunteer Cathy Byrd and Foundation board member, client and dear friend Alexandra Taussig were on hand to greet our first two clients, Luz and Kristen. Luz and Kristen were given the same type of consultation we provide to private clients of our firm. We talked about lifestyles, career aspirations and the role of personal presentation in enhancing confidence. Both women were given a $100 gift certificate from our Foundation to purchase clothes and accessories from the Council that we helped identify as serving them well.

Cathy, Alexandra and I continued to meet with more women referred to us by Family Promise on the second Saturday in the months of March, April and May. In June, we expanded our efforts to include referrals from the Council’s Food Pantry. We also expanded our volunteer shopping team to include Council volunteers Judy Lambert, Julia Baker and Leah Sauter. The formula was working. Greet people with kindness, listen to their hopes and dreams, and work with them to select clothing and accessories that empower them to start each day with an extra dose of confidence and self-esteem.

With our pilot complete, we took the summer off from seeing more clients. We used this down time to raise additional money so that we could design and install a custom closet on the second floor of the Council, giving the program privacy and a permanent home. The closet was installed in early September, in time for our first fall Karma Saturday on September 22nd. Volunteer personal shoppers Linda Coffman and Linda Farley joined our efforts that day too, bringing our lead personal shopper team to 8. We will end 2018 having served just over 20 clients with plans to double this number in 2019.

Your Help is Welcome

Fundraising is now underway for our 2019 effort. Donations to this special program can be made via our Foundation. All amounts are welcome. We are also looking for a few volunteer personal shoppers to join our team. Please contact Kris DeGraw Danna (kddanna@needhamcommuncitycouncil.org) if interested.

Special thanks to the Needham Community Council for embracing the vision for the program from day one and offering the type of institutional support and flexibility needed to get a program like this off the ground and running. I’m certainly glad I said “yes” to hosting your fashion show and that you said “yes” to starting this program!