The Lyre, Summer 2009 / A Passion for Fashion
Helping to Open Doors for Disadvantaged Job Seekers
Terri Mathews Kearns, a 1975 initiate of the Alpha Upsilon chapter at the University of Alabama, always loved fashion. Combining both style and community service, Terri built, from the ground up, Our Sisters’ Closet—a nonprofit organization outfitting underprivileged job seeking women.
With a degree in fashion retail from the University of Alabama, it seemed as if Terri Kearns had always known what she wanted to do with her life—fashion, fashion and more fashion. She soon began a career with JCPenney as a department manager, where her knowledge of clothing and business practices was able to grow. Terri took a break from the clothing world, following the birth of her two sons, but she never lost interest. When the opportunity of JCPenney’s Events Manager was offered, she jumped at the chance to get back to work and to try something a bit different. In this position, Terri was responsible for fashion shows and many nonprofit sponsorship events and was able to work directly with the community. Through these opportunities, she was able to see how the nonprofit organizations were executed and how many people were helped through the organizations’ purposes and charitable events. Terri was truly touched; she too wanted to give back. Her passion for fashion was about to go a few steps further.
On a Saturday morning, while finishing the dishes, a program on television caught the attention of the self-proclaimed CNN junkie. The news channel was reporting on a program in Washington D.C. that provided women proper clothing in relation to job interviews—women who could not afford such a thing. Combining fashion and community service, this was exactly what she was looking for. The following Monday, Terri contacted the organization in Washington D.C. and wanted to find out how she too could start a similar program in her local community. The following year was filled with personal doubt, excitement, fear, happiness and many questions. Where would the boutique be located? Would the program be successful? Could she make it successful? The outpouring of support from her family and church allowed her to put aside her worries. The boutique was placed in her church’s old parish center, following renovations by volunteers and the community, and donations of clothing and accessories were collected for months. The boutique was aptly named Our Sisters’ Closet.
In March of 1998, Terri outfitted her first client, a women attending an interview at a retail store. She was unsure of whether or not she would have the correct sizes or even enough clothing in general. “What if I didn’t have her size? What if I didn’t have enough shoes? I wanted her to have something that she truly loved,” Terri recalls. As the woman’s appearance was brought together, the woman’s confidence rose. Terri had founded something more than fashion and community service; she had founded the opportunities of confidence, knowledge and success.
Today, the boutique sees approximately 25 women monthly, and Terri, serving as the executive director, personally outfits each and every one. She has expanded the organization to include a series of workshops, SuccessAbility Services, that educate over 50 people monthly, both women and men; two charitable events, Purse with Purpose and The Cheap Chic Boutique; and involvements with social service agencies and other job training organizations. Terri is never far from the action, teaching classes, making contacts and meeting one-on-one with those who benefit from the organization’s offerings.
As an Alpha Chi Omega, she is thankful for the teambuilding projects and camaraderie of her college days. That sense of being helpful and a part of something bigger is where she recognizes her service beginnings. Now as a member of the Mu Phi Mu alumnae chapter in Mobile, Alabama, her bond with her Alpha Chi Omega sisters has grown even stronger. Their aid and support of Terri and Our Sisters’ Closet is never-ending.
Right now, life is great for Terri, her husband, Hoagy, and their two sons, Ben and Sam. Although there is never a dull or free moment in their lives, they have made family priority. Terri laughs at the truth of
the saying, “When you are self-employed, you are the C.E.O., but also scrub toilets—there is always something that needs to be done.” Balancing the work/family aspect comes with its difficulties, but by taking on new challenges together, their strength has and will continue to grow. For now, Terri lives on the go. Bookkeeping, outfitting, teaching, and her fascination of cooking from scratch keep her busy, but she does not mind. She sums it all by saying, “When you find your passion, life becomes easy. Life becomes much happier and just easier.”
To learn more about Our Sisters’ Closet, visit www.oursisterscloset.org.