It would have been appropriate to shed tears about the horrific fire that broke out early Sunday morning, February 2, and destroyed the headquarters of Working Wardrobes, an organization that has helped 105,000 people to get back on their feet through the dignity of work during its 30-year existence.
Still, the approach taken by Jerri Rosen, founder and CEO of Orange County’s foremost career development nonprofit that has been a champion for at-risk men, women, young adults and veterans to help them achieve the Power of a Paycheck, was to focus on the positive. While she said it was “surreal to see 30 years of your life go up in flames,” she “will remember the outpouring of love and support from the community.”
At a press conference held February 3 at Goodwill Fitness Center at 1601 E. St. Andrew Place in Santa Ana, the temporary home of Working Wardrobes, Rosen said, “We are absolutely devastated by this catastrophic loss. The heart of our operations is gone, and so is 30 years of history. We are grateful and relieved to report that no one was hurt or in the building at the time of the fire. Now our job is to get back on our feet so we can serve our clients very quickly, and we aim to do just that with the help of our remarkable community. ”
Relating that the temporary headquarters was a place for donors to come with donations and a place to serve clients, Rosen said, “This is our 30th anniversary, and it’s going to be a good year when we find a new permanent home.” She hopes to be up, running and serving the community and then celebrating the milestone at a gala planned for June 20.
Rosen described Working Wardrobes as “an accidental nonprofit organization that started as a way to help survivors of domestic violence.” While the organization collects clothing to help people dress for success, Rosen called that aspect of Working Wardrobes “the icing on the cake.” More importantly, the organization provides case management, skills training and job placement. It instills confidence and dignity in clients who have suffered a loss of dignity and self-esteem. “In short, we serve people more on the inside than the outside,” Rosen said.
The 22,000-square-foot building at 1851 Kettering Street in Irvine had served as Working Wardrobes headquarters since 2016, when the organization relocated from Costa Mesa. Although 100 firefighters were at the scene of the blaze, the timing of the fire, the flammable contents of the building and the collapsing roof made it difficult to fight, according to OCFA Public Information Officer Capt. Tony Bommarito, who estimated the structure loss at $10 million and the contents loss—donations of clothing, computer labs and corporate headquarters equipment and mementos—at $2 million.
“For three decades, we have been helping those in need rebuild their lives,” said Rosen. “Now, our friends and supporters have stepped up to help us rebuild. There is a long journey ahead of us, but we have taken the first steps, and we are doing it hand-in-hand with our community.”
The loss has resonated with members of the community. Nicole Suydam, president and CEO of Goodwill Orange County, texted Rosen as soon as she heard the news and offered 15,000 square feet of space to enable Working Wardrobes to serve clients and accept donations. A team from Habitat for Humanity is on-site at the temporary Goodwill location, rebuilding dressing rooms for Working Wardrobes clients.
A major donation from Pacific Life Foundation, plus donations from individuals are “blowing up the phone,” in Rosen’s words, and she personally answers as many calls as possible. Since the fire, Working Wardrobes has fielded calls from more than 400 local residents who would like to volunteer. They are being scheduled to help go through donated clothing and set up the wardrobing area, providing hands-on assistance that the organization needs. Orange County Supervisors Andrew Do and Don Wagner pledged the county’s help in finding a permanent location.
Retailer BB Dakota has donated 1,000 pieces of brand-new women’s clothing to the organization. Men’s Wearhouse has donated a truckload of new men’s clothing and rolling racks. Jewelry designer Gorjana has committed to hosting four jewelry parties to benefit Working Wardrobes in their stores. The events will be held at the Laguna Beach, Fashion Island, Irvine Spectrum and Long Beach stores. The company is also donating a massive collection of unsold merchandise.
Jewish Federation & Family Services, which has had a partnership with Working Wardrobes, encourages people to support the organization and its critical work in the community by making a much-needed financial donation, volunteering time and/or donating clean, good-quality professional and casual clothing, shoes and accessories for men and women. Rosen also requested donations of laptops and office supplies.
The greatest need for Working Wardrobes continues to be tax-deductible financial donations. The money will be used to replace lost office equipment and to continue day-to-day operations, so that the mission of serving those in need continues uninterrupted. Another need is gas and food cards, as well as bus passes to be given to the organization’s clients.
Rosen concluded, “I never thought we would have to get back on our feet, but we will. May the start of our second 30 years be the start of something good.”
Donations of clothing and equipment for Working Wardrobes can be made at The Rogers A. Severson (Goodwill) Fitness & Technology Center, 1601 E. St. Andrew Place, Santa Ana, CA 92705 from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., weekdays and Saturdays. Clothing must be donated clean and on hangers.
Financial donations can be made via the website at workingwardrobes.org/donate/donate-money/. For more information, call (714) 210-2460.
ILENE SCHNEIDER is a contributing writer to jlife magazine.