Last year there were 300, this year close to a thousand. One thousand women needing outfits to wear for the job interview that could break them out of a life of poverty and public assistance.

The clothing was provided by other women - "Women Helping Women" was how it was billed. But news releases have to protect the dignity of the individual and can't tell the human story. If you were there, you knew that this project was more than platitudes; this project changed lives.(BU) Ms. Tradition looked like she belonged among the Federal Women's Club volunteers who were helping at the check-out tables. But this middle-aged matron was a daughter of the '50s. Married 32 years, children raised, her husband had left her. "No-fault divorce" cast her as an "equal" but dealt her a bad hand. All the skills from her first career, running a home - the budgeting, planning, car pooling, PTA-ing - would bring her only minimum wage.

Ms. Tradition was going to school; she was on her way up, and the business clothes and accessories she'd received would help open the door for her. On her own for 3 1/2 months, she'd learned more than business skills, however.

"I've had breakfast with the young girls at the (Salt Lake Community College) Skills Center, and what they have to go through is heart-rending," she said. "Some of these girls have to fight to protect themselves."

(BU) Ms. Unfair Odds typified the young women Ms. Tradition had seen. She was just 18, with a broken marriage and a new baby. She'd never had a chance. Instead of nursery rhymes, her mother had told her "You're stupid!" and she "escaped" to a husband who felt even worse about her.

Women Helping Women began with Lynne Zimmerman, press secretary to Mayor Palmer DePaulis. She'll tell you others were involved, but it was her idea. "Why can't we collect clothing that will go to women struggling for self-sufficiency?" she wondered. With the mayor's support, the project attracted immediate interest.

Rieneke Orlandi, Pyke Manufacturing Co. representative, was like a fairy godmother with her offer for volunteers, clothing racks and $30,000 worth of new clothing. Tamara Wharton, volunteer coordinator for Salt Lake City, tried to find a place to stage the distribution.

"No one would touch it with a 10-foot pole," she remembered - until she contacted Jeanne Pierce at Salt Lake Community College's Skill Center. Pierce is the single-head-of-household counselor at the Skill Center. And the women in training at the Skill Center were tireless volunteers during the days of sorting and arranging the donated clothing.

The Community Services Council, Women Lawyers of Utah, Executive Women International, the Junior League of SLC, the YWCA and Utah's social service agencies all combined forces to stage the event. The city loaned out office dividers to make dressing rooms; Holy Cross Hospital loaned sheets to hang on the dividers; Little Caesar's Pizza sent food for the volunteers; Little America and J.C. Penney helped. When the big day arrived, there were 5,000 items of clothing neatly arranged on racks and tables.

But it was the individual efforts of more than 80 women that turned the Skill Center into a department store without price tags. It was a caring woman who donated an Evan Picone suit that still had its ZCMI price tag attached. It was women from the Skill Center who worked the computers at the check-in where invitations were checked to be sure each person was truly needy.

TV cameramen who covered the event were instructed to protect the identities of the women picking out clothes. The Women in Jeopardy program sent women whose lives depended upon anonymity. The only follow-up will have to be by chance.

Two weeks after the distribution, Tamara Wharton was interviewing women for an internship with the city. "One young woman came in wearing everything she had received at the Skills Center," Wharton said. "I couldn't go on an interview before Women Helping Women," she told Wharton.

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(Additional information)

Women in poverty

-Ninety-five percent of the 15,000 households in Utah receiving public assistance are headed by a single female parent.

-According to 1986 statistics, 41.6 percent of single mothers with children under 18 live in poverty.

-A single female head of household faces 4.5 times the risk of being poor than a single male head of household.

-A single female who is a high school dropout will make about $8,000 a year, while census records show a single male with less than a high school education will earn $15,000.

-A female single parent with little or no work experience will have great difficulty earning more than minimum wage.

-Among the biggest blocks to self-sufficiency for a single mother are low wges and high child-care costs.

*From "poverty in Ytah--1986," by Shirley Weathers, Utah Issues research director.