Nov 18, 2011

Female veterans dress for success thanks to Women Helping Women

The registration table was bustling and dozens of women with refreshments in hand were chatting amiably when Michelle Comer arrived at the Veterans Day Mix-and-Mingle hosted by Women Helping Women. In the midst of the happy commotion, a large table overflowing with colorful gift bags caught Comer’s attention.

Are all those bags for our women veterans? she wondered. Yes, she was told, and even more gifts had been tucked under the table.

“I can’t tell you how amazing it was to walk into the room and see all those gift bags,” said Comer, vice president of external relations for Volunteers of America of Illinois. Inside the bags were donations of professional clothing and other items to stock VOA’s Dress for Success Closet, where female military veterans can get what they need to look good for job interviews.

WHW Mix-and-Mingles, hosted by the women attorneys of Chuhak & Tecson, P.C., are biannual gatherings that offer women business leaders and entrepreneurs the opportunity to combine business development, networking and community service at the same event. A non-profit organization serving women is selected to benefit from each mixer.

In honor of Veterans Day, the Nov. 10 event was dedicated to VOA, a national organization with outreaches to many vulnerable populations, including veterans. Between the WHW event and Chuhak & Tecson’s Jeans Day on Nov. 11, VOA was showered with 466 pieces of new and gently used clothing and other accessories, more than 50 personal care products and more than $1000 in gift cards and monetary donations.

“The magnitude was overwhelming,” Comer said. “It was great to be able to fill our closet.”

The effort was aided by high attendance, as the popularity of Mix-and-Mingles continues to rise. The recent event drew more than 125 people—a good 40 percent bump over previous gatherings.

"We had a very significant turnout of women business leaders from the Chicago area," said Stacey Bromberg, a Chuhak & Tecson principal who often represents disabled veterans in guardianship matters. “As VOA representatives spoke about the obstacles facing returning women veterans, it was clear that the organization’s mission greatly resonated with our attendees.”

Nancy Hughes Moyer, president and chief executive officer of VOA’s Illinois affiliate, spoke about the numbers of returning veterans and how special they are to the community.

“She gave this anecdote,” Comer said. “If you survey 20 people walking down Michigan Avenue, they maybe could tell you who Mike “The Situation” is from “Jersey Shore,” but they probably could not name one person they personally know who is serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“The representation of people serving in the military is such a small fraction of our overall population,” Comer said. “There are just a handful of people doing the work that we all take for granted to protect our freedom.”

Moyer told the gathering that the single most important thing the community can do to help a returning veteran is to provide a job. Donations to the Dress for Success Closet help make that possible, and VOA is planning a holiday shopping event at the closet, where everything is “100% off” for female veterans.

“Shopping is a wonderful, holiday tradition that has been a great bonding experience for women for generations,” Moyer later wrote in an email to WHW. “Thanks to you, we will be able to offer a semblance of that great experience to the female veterans in our program whose current life circumstances don’t allow them to enjoy it at traditional shopping destinations.”

U.S. military veterans were represented at the Mix-and-Mingle. Briggette Britton, who served in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm, spoke about the obstacles encountered by women veterans after they leave the military.

“She spoke about the support she received from VOA after returning from overseas,” Bromberg said, “and indicated that childcare and health insurance are two of the most significant issues women veterans face when they return from active duty back to civilian life.”

Marine veteran Brandis Carson and Army veteran Shanetta Wilson also attended the mixer on behalf of VOA. They especially enjoyed connecting with an ex-Marine who was among the WHW professionals, Comer said.

One new feature of the Mix-and-Mingle was the Biz Dev Challenge, a business card exchange created to offer more structured networking for those who want it. Anyone who was interested dropped her card in a fishbowl and drew out another woman's card. The two are encouraged to meet over coffee to hear about each other’s business and kick around strategies for business development. The hope is that each will learn something new from the other—even if they happen to be in different industries.

Comer is certainly one who sees the value in women joining forces.

“When women band together, we can accomplish great things,” she said. “I think that table full of gift bags represented what we can do together.”