When Debra Gerberding first walked into My Sister’s Closet in 2018, she said the well-lit thrift store crowded with donated clothes, garments, shoes and jewelry looked magical.
“There’s something about the colors – the colors of clothes,” she said. “It just makes you feel good, as a woman walking in and seeing these really pretty things and then realizing, ‘Hey, I’m not so bad myself.’”
Gerberding was looking for clothes to wear for her upcoming job interview. She said didn’t feel like she could get the job, and she didn’t have the proper clothes for the interview.
Then the staff at the store, located at 414 S. College Ave., got to work. They helped her find professional clothes. They encouraged her, telling her she could get the job she wanted.
“Somehow, it was like I met my fairy godmother, and they just, you know, like, waved the magic wand over me,” she said. “Suddenly, I felt proud of how I looked in the mirror.”
Gerberding now works as the client services coordinator at My Sister’s Closet. She is one of the more than 2,500 women helped by the store in more than two decades to prepare for sustainable employment. The nonprofit thrift store assists job-searching women in poverty in and around Monroe County through a clothing voucher program offering each up to five free professional outfits. It also trains women for interviews, builds their resumes and offers apprenticeship opportunities.
Many women served by My Sister’s Closet have experienced tragedy and trauma. Sandy Keller, executive director and founder of My Sister’s Closet, said 72% of the women served by the store experienced some form of homelessness, and 64% suffered from mental or physical abuse. She said the store’s mission is to give women a second chance by dressing and training them to impress employers.
COVID-19 has proved challenging for the survival of My Sister’s Closet, Keller said. The store hasn’t been able to fundraise since the pandemic began, and its lease is ending in December 2022. Keller said Monroe County, its landlord, was generous to have renewed the lease multiple times, but it has sought to expand the Monroe Convention Center since before the store’s founding. This means the store may have to relocate soon for it to survive.
Keller said her greatest fear is for the store to shut down if it doesn’t raise enough money. She said she deeply believes My Sister’s Closet benefits the Bloomington community.
“Every time one of these amazing, determined, courageous women decides that she is going to pull her family up out of the trenches and move them forward, I just think everybody in this town should just stand up and cheer,” she said.
Keller said the store is run by four employees and around 350 to 450 volunteers each year. She said each staff member has a specific job when a woman comes into the store, such as finding her proper-sized clothes, jewelry and footwear, putting on makeup for her or speech coaching.
Thalissa Paixão, a fifth-year volunteer from Belém, Brazil, said women believe in themselves more when they put on new clothes at My Sister’s Closet.
“We give them confidence,” she said. “They need to see themselves, like, ‘Wow, I am capable to do that.’”
Volunteer Laura Gottlieb is responsible for the jewelry at the store. She said she once saw a woman shedding tears of happiness and hugging all the volunteers and staff at the store.
“Some of these women have young children, and when you see the confidence level of these women building – you know, they can be getting jobs, how they’re looking at everything – they can pass that confidence on to their children,” she said.
Keller said many women helped by the store went on to find good jobs with benefits, making more money than she’d ever make in her life. She said since the store’s founding in 1998, she has seen these women’s lives changed after putting on new clothes and receiving job training.
“Suddenly you’ve changed a chain of events into a different direction and everything gets better,” she said. “And that’s what My Sister’s Closet is all about.”
My Sister’s Closet has set up a relocation fund to raise $750,000 before the end of 2022. Donations are tax-deductible and instructions are available on the store’s website.