Suits for Success donates professional clothing to parolees from state prisons
It's a self-esteem aid for a parolee walking out of prison to take his first steps into the civilian world wearing a professional suit.
It's a confidence-builder for a former prisoner to attend her first job interview in formal business attire, a far cry from a prison jumpsuit.
And it's the mission of a Naperville-based nonprofit to make these life boosts reality for former Illinois inmates by collecting, cleaning and distributing donated professional attire.
Suits for Success started two years ago with the efforts of Bill Denwood of Naperville, who soon enlisted owner Steve Hirmer of Signature Cleaners of University Commons in Naperville. The charity has donated more than 21,500 professional garments to the Illinois Department of Corrections and other organizations that help people after they've been released from incarceration.
Denwood, who ran Suits for Success on his own for the first three months, said the number of garments the small organization has delivered is "amazing."
"And, to me, it's a God thing," he said.
Positive early feedback is keeping the effort going -- and growing.
Some former inmates have left the Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Program at a western Illinois correctional facility wearing clothing donated from Suits for Success, said Charles Johnson, warden of the Kewanee program, which offers selected prisoners adult education and job training at the end of their incarceration.
"We just really appreciate what they do for us because it makes a huge difference in these offenders when we're getting ready to release them," said Johnson, who has sent nearly 80 former inmates out with Suits for Success clothing since January, some of the more than 4,000 people the organization has outfitted so far. "It's just amazing that they feel good about themselves."
Recipients have told Hirmer, "Not only have I never owned a suit, but I've never had a suit on." Wearing one, he said, "really raises their self-esteem quite remarkably."
That's why Hirmer, Denwood, about 11 volunteers, six dry cleaners and members of 21 churches all chip in.
Volunteer Tim Ford owned a business in the kitchen industry that sold equipment and supplies to prisons, so he became familiar with the plight of new parolees.
"This is a way to give them something to hopefully get them started on a straight path," Ford said.
According to Illinois Department of Corrections recidivism data, roughly 40 percent of inmates released in fiscal year 2015 returned to department custody for a new felony or a technical violation within three years.
An interview suit alone won't end recidivism, but Hirmer said he's moved by the ability to take any positive step to help smooth the path from prison to productivity.
"I'm very aware of circumstances that they're faced with when they come back into society," Hirmer said, "and anything we can do to give them a helping hand can't hurt society."
Each week, Denwood and other Suits for Success volunteers collect clothing from several donation sites, such as Sharing Connections in Downers Grove, which focuses on providing home furnishings to those in need.
Ryan Varju, chief operating officer of Sharing Connections, said his organization specifically sets aside formal attire for Suits for Success "to make sure the abundance of clothing that we're receiving can go directly to the community."
Churches from Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic and evangelical denominations are frequent donors.
Woodridge United Methodist Church leaves out two collection boxes year-round, one for men's professional clothing and the other for women's. The boxes don't accept shoes, ties, belts or underwear -- largely because prisoners could misuse many of these items. But the boxes were full in late October when Denwood and Ford stopped by.
"For our church, mission, outreach -- those opportunities are high on our priority list," said Danita Anderson, pastor of the congregation, whose 400 members also donate food to a sister congregation in Joliet and knit hats and mittens for students in Woodridge Elementary District 68. "Those kind of efforts are just who we are."
Some donors -- often those who are recently retired or cleaning out the closet of a deceased loved one -- also drop off clothing directly at a participating cleaners, like Hirmer's shop in Naperville. Cleaners in Sugar Grove, Wilmette, Rockford and Joliet also are involved, but the effort is primarily based in the Western suburbs. Hirmer said he hopes to change that by reaching out to businesses in the Illinois Professional Drycleaners and Launderers Association, to get more cleaners to join.
Once a suit makes it to a cleaner, Hirmer said an employee spends about five minutes total sorting it, tagging it, placing it into a cleaning machine, removing it, pressing it and storing it until Denwood or another volunteer can drive it to a prison. Denwood said Suits for Success is collecting so much clothing, the organization now is seeking donations to rent a storage facility to house items before they can be distributed.
The Kewanee correctional facility and Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill now serve as hubs for donations, sharing what their programs don't need with other prisons across the state. But before that setup was established, Denwood drove all over Illinois, making the deliveries himself.
All he wanted to do when he started the program was bring a Bible study to inmates at Stateville. But after he waited more than a year to gain access, officials asked him instead if he had any clothes he could donate for prisoners preparing for job interviews. He jumped at the chance.
The Illinois Department of Corrections counts on Suits for Success donations to support a clothing closet and sustainability initiative that is projected to save more than $317,000 a year, meaning even state budget officials can be thankful for the work.
"The state cannot afford decent clothes," Denwood said. "So it's a niche we can actually answer, and we should be doing this."