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Clothes make a difference in these ‘law suits’

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Indika Wijesekera was recovering from drug addiction and living in a Salvation Army facility in Orange County last year when he went to a “Day of Self-Esteem” event, sponsored by a local nonprofit, in hopes of getting some job training, contacts with potential employers — and a new look. He walked away with a few business cards, a haircut, some casual wear and “quite a few suits,” including one he wore to a job interview with The Men’s Warehouse, where he landed a job in July.

And although there’s no way to track where his suit came from, it’s possible that it was one of the 1,200 donated by California lawyers as part of the “Law Suits” program of the State Bar’s Litigation Section.

Norman Rodich, founder of the Law Suits program, and Jason Larios, a Working Wardrobes client who got a new look at "Day of Self-Esteem."
Norman Rodich, founder of the Law Suits program, and Jason Larios, a Working Wardrobes client who got a new look at "Day of Self-Esteem."

Started five years ago, Law Suits is the brainchild of Norman J. Rodich, a partner at Palmieri, Tyler, Wiener, Wilhelm & Waldron LLP in Irvine. Donations of suits, ties, shirts, belts and shoes, as well as casual wear, can be made at any Men’s Warehouse store throughout the month of March. Men and women’s clothing is accepted. Donations are tax deductible and donors also receive a 10 percent discount on a subsequent regularly priced Men’s Warehouse purchase.

“The beauty of the system is its simplicity,” said Rodich. “We don’t really have to have separate collection drives.”

The genesis of Law Suits came in 1996 when Rodich’s girlfriend, whom he later married, was approached by someone in her office who was seeking clothing donations for an individual who needed a suit to wear to a job interview. Rodich went to his closet, found a suit, belt, tie and some shoes and donated them. “I subsequently heard these clothes fit this person, helped him out and he succeeded in his job interview,” Rodich recalled.

“I thought, this is a real easy thing to do for people that would really help them get back into the workforce. If we could harness the power of the State Bar, if every attorney in the state or even a fraction would donate a suit, we could help a tremendous number of people.”

Rodich, who practices business and real estate litigation, next connected with Jerri Rosen, founder and executive director of Working Wardrobes for a New Start, an Orange County nonprofit that helps adults in crisis return to the workforce. Since 1991, Working Ward-robes has sponsored an annual “Day of Self-Esteem” for women who are survivors of domestic abuse, and in 1998 a men’s program began. The self-esteem events, which typically attract just over a hundred people, offer a boutique environment with clothing on racks, sorted by type of garment and size. Partici-pants get massages, manicures, haircuts and job counseling. Personal shoppers help them select outfits, and companies ranging from Kinko’s to Fed Ex to temp agencies hand out job applications.

In January 1998, Rodich wrote to George Zimmer, CEO of The Men’s Warehouse, asking the company to support Working Wardrobes for men.

And a unique partnership was born — between a quasi-governmental agency, a nonprofit organization and a for-profit corporation.

“The turning point,” says Rodich, “was figuring out how to make it work as a partnership with The Men’s Warehouse. They’ve been magnificent with their generosity, and they have a collection and distribution system.”

Rosen said the company annually donates more than $200,000 (retail value) worth of clothing; last year alone, it gave 5,000 new dress shirts. “No way could we do our program without their support,” she said.

In addition to the days of self-esteem, Working Wardrobes offers ongoing programs throughout the year, serving more than 3,000 people, most of them referred by long-term residential programs and welfare-to-work programs. Most of the male clients, said Rosen, have gone through some kind of addiction recovery program and many have spent time in jail. They are highly motivated to turn their lives around, she said.

The program has been so successful — it has gone from 400 outfits collected in 2002 to 1,200 last year — that both Rodich and Rosen would like to expand it statewide.

“Obviously, career clothing is not a magic bullet,” Rodich acknowledged. “Giving somebody a suit doesn’t cure all of that person’s problems, but it does cure one very important problem that is an impediment. If you don’t have the right clothes, that will stop you from getting to the next level.”

Rosen calls Rodich “one of our most valuable assets” and says she “thanks Norm every day for opening the door for us.”

She said the statistic that best demonstrates the program’s success is the average time between a self-esteem day and landing a job — 25 days. “So you can really say that clothes make the difference. Confidence makes the difference.”

Just ask Indika Wijesekera. After 10 years addicted to crystal methamphetamine, an addiction that started when he was a student at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, he was homeless for a time and had been arrested “multiple times” for sales and possession of drugs. Facing a five-year prison term, he spent a year in a residential rehab program, but relapsed and was again looking at time when he went to the Salvation Army sober living shelter. After attending a self-esteem day, he began working as a customer service representative at The Men’s Wearhouse store in Cerritos and has worked up to wardrobe consultant. He hopes eventually to apply for a management position.

He shares a house with two others in Anaheim Hills, attends community college and plans to transfer to Cal State Fullerton next year and complete a degree in business. The Working Wardrobes program gave him hope and an entrée to a better world, Wijesekera said.

“When you’re feeling really down, you feel like you have a lot of obstacles. People (in that position) wouldn’t think they could get normal jobs and go back to the things they know. (The program) gives them a chance to start over fresh. Working Wardrobes helped tremendously. They set me up with a nice employer and brought my hopes up.”

Clothing donations should be in good condition, clean and suitable for job interviews. Plus sizes are particularly needed.

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