Making Changes is an organization that is near and dear to my heart. I volunteer as an Image Consultant and Stylist with one of the programs - My Best Friend's Closet. It was a huge privilege to be able to sit down with the Executive Director, Cathy Coutts and talk to her about the organization and how they help empower women in Calgary.
Keep reading to learn more about Making Changes and the amazing impact they are making with their various programs.
The Brazen Closet: What do you do for Making Changes?
Cathy: I’m the Executive Director of Making Changes. My role really is to oversee the operations of the organization. I've been with the organization for about 2 years now.
The Brazen Closet: How did you get involved with Making Changes?
Cathy: I previously worked for a few years as the Executive Director of Women In Need Society, a huge Calgary based social enterprise that owns 5 thrift stores and helps to provide basic needs to women in poverty and their families. I took some time off to travel and when I returned, this opportunity was available and it was just a natural transition for my experience and my focus on women, new immigrants and fashion, it was a perfect fit.
The Brazen Closet: Have you always been involved in Non-Profits?
Cathy: Not at all, I was in the Banking industry for 30 years.
The Brazen Closet: Wow that is huge leap! Focusing on Making Changes. What does Making Changes actually do?
Cathy: The goal of Making Changes is to create futures for women, by empowering them build their skills and confidence. We provide information resources, clothing and tools to be able to enter the workforce or explore further education. This helps them become a contributing member of their community both financially and socially.
The Brazen Closet: How long has Making Changes been in operation and about how many women would you say have walked through those doors?
Cathy: It’s been incorporated for 21 years but our first program was started back in 1981. In the earlier days the number of women helped would have been less being a new organization that was growing in capacity. But in the last five or six years, I can say we’ve helped around 2,000 to 2,300 women every year.
The Brazen Closet: Would you say there has been a higher number of clients due to the economic downturn?
Cathy: It’s been pretty consistent for the last couple of years but we’ve seen it go up recently. I think because a lot of people most likely had severance packages or support systems that are now starting to run out.
We are also starting to see a rise in the number of immigrants. For refugees especially, when they come, their first need is basic settlement and housing. Now, they are at the stage where they are looking for support for skill development, school or employment.
The Brazen Closet: What are the programs offered?
Cathy: We have actually four programs.
The 1st is the Employment and Life Skills Program, which is our core program. It is a 7 week program that is specifically for new immigrant women. It helps them identify and learn to market their skills, helps with their resumes and preparing for interviews; helps them with finding and using resources and information for their job searches and even networking.
The program also helps them understand the community, business and culture. There are lots of similarities but sometimes the little differences may affect the outcome of the interview and influence if they get the job or not.
The 2nd is the Walk-in Closet. This helps provide free appropriate professional business attire for women facing financial need and want to join the workforce. It is not just about the clothes but really helping them feel confident from the first impression perspective. They feel like they have the appropriate clothing to go for an interview and work; and their appearance will not be a barrier to getting a job.
We have volunteer styling consultants that help them pick out a new wardrobe. A typical consultation lasts for about 90 minutes. It is not only about clothes, but also includes conversations on what sector they are looking to work in, what type of business and clothing they would possibly need, what to expect and so much more. It really helps boost their confidence and helps them get ready for their interviews or whatever they may be preparing for.
The 3rd is the Women in Technology Program. This is a brand new 6 month employment program for women that are really focused on obtaining careers in the IT sector in networking.
It is a 24-week program that includes 8 weeks of Employment and Life Skills Program, 12 weeks of technical training with YYCNet Labs that leads to CCENT and CCNA certification and 4 weeks of Work experience to prepare and fully equip them for the workplace.
The 4th is My Best Friend’s Closet. This is for teenage girls between 12 and 18 years old, that are facing financial need. They are provided with clothing and accessories they need for school, sports and recreation. It also really helps build their self-confidence and motivation.
It helps the young girls feel like they have a sense of belonging and they can participate in school and recreation activities without having to worry about being judged because of their appearance. The volunteer styling consultants for My Best friend’s closet are usually in the 18s to 20s, this helps create a near to peer experience and helps the clients feel more comfortable.
The Brazen Closet: Wow, those are really great programs. How do the women access all these programs?
Cathy: They come through a variety of ways but the main source is through referrals from other other service agencies, Educational Institutes, Social service programs or from Immigrant services.
They can also self refer when they are really in need; say for an upcoming interview or new to the City or whatever the case may be. We don’t encourage walk-ins mainly because the style consulting requires booking a one-on-one appointment, so the 90 minutes is focused fully on the client. This also makes sure we have enough volunteer consultants available.
Same goes for My Best Friend’s Closet. The clients could be daughters of the Walk-in Closet clients or referred from schools, immigrant organizations etc.
The Brazen Closet: The organization is highly dependent on volunteers, how do you make that work?
Cathy: Each program is staffed with a Program Manager and a Volunteer Manager. The Volunteer Manager recruits volunteers and the Program Managers manage their team of volunteers that work specifically within their programs.
We have approximately 250 regular volunteers who have the required security clearance to work with our clients one-on-one. We also have volunteers who don’t need clearances, for special events, Bingos and Casinos; which are mainly for fundraisers. There are also lots of organizations in the city that do one-off events for team building such as organizing clothing drives or sorting parties to sort and merchandise donations.
The Brazen Closet: In your 2 years with the organization, what has been your most profound experience?
Cathy: I think what has been most profound for me is having women come back and tell us how much our services have impacted their lives. Providing clothes and having these conversations may seem small but the impact is huge. These women are coming from different situations, some new to the country or the city, coming out of a bad situation, trying to get back on track; get a new job or go back to school.
To see the magnitude of improvement they have made when they come back a few years later is just overwhelming. We get a lot of these success stories, it really is humbling to be part of their story and see the progress they have made.
The Brazen Closet: How can people get more involved?
Cathy: People can be involved in Making Changes in various ways. They can donate work or school appropriate clothing for women and young girls. They can come and volunteer to sort donations and merchandise. They can volunteer as stylists and image consultants for the two closets.
They can volunteer for data inputting and reporting because a big amount of what we do is supported by fundraisers, so capturing the data and reporting the impacts of the programs is extremely important.
We also do bingos and casinos, which require one-off volunteering or they can just come out to support our various community events.
They can also help by donating cash, which we use for supporting any gaps in supply for items that can’t be donated or we don’t get enough of: such as underwear, running shoes, winter boots etc.
The Brazen Closet: Tell me about the upcoming fundraising event with YYC Chic?
Cathy: YYC Chic is our fundraiser. Four years ago, an organization called Fashion Forward chose us as their charity of choice for two years, which was awesome and it was always with the understanding that they were going to move on to other charities.
At the same time we realized that we needed more control of our own fundraising and so not to duplicate what Fashion Forward did but to create a similar type of fundraising event with our own flavor, we started YYC Chic last year, this is our second year. Last year we raised $52,000. We are hoping to surpass that this year.
The Brazen Closet: What are you hoping to achieve with the upcoming fundraiser?
Cathy: We want to create a further understanding of who we are, what we do and definitely to raise funds for the overall operation of the organization. We hope to have between 250 to 300 people in attendance and raise a substantial amount of money to our support our various programs.
The Brazen Closet: What more do you want people to know?
Cathy: As a charity, we are always looking for support in different ways and even just sharing what we do. If the community knows what we do, then they are able to refer people that need our help.
For tickets to the Making Changes Fundraising Gala:
Date: Thursday, October 26, 2017
Venue: Civic on Third (130 3 Ave SE, Calgary, AB)
The event will showcase the best in local fashion, art, beauty and culture, with a fashion show, live performances, and a silent auction. Raffle prizes include a flight for two from West Jet, a stay in a Canmore Resort, and a Gucci bag. Get your tickets ($80) at makingchangesassociation.ca/yyc-chic
For more information visit www.makingchangesassociation.ca
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