What I've Learned From Styling Homeless Youth

YouthCare Image
Mon, 12/08/2014

One of our amazing volunteers, Mellicia Marx of Poplin Style Direction, recently shared her reflections and lessons learned from providing career styling sessions for graduates of YouthCare's Barista Training and Education Program in an article on her website

What I've Learned From Styling Homeless Youth

We've just wrapped up a year of styling homeless youth at YouthCare. With my previous life in philanthropy, I know how much energy it takes for an organization to invest in volunteers and I am so grateful to have had this opportunity. 

For the past year, various members of the Poplin team and I have held styling sessions for graduates of YouthCare's Barista Training and Education Program. Lisa Angeles Guise from the One Eighty Foundation has been volunteering with us every step of the way. The graduates are homeless or formerly homeless youth (generally teens to early twenties). We hold 2-3 hour sessions that start with a powerpoint explaining what is appropriate clothing in the workplace. It includes activities to help youth find their personal professional style and to reinforce that you don't have to spend a great deal of money to look amazing. Working with the YouthCare team, our goal was to give grads a glimpse of Corporate America and assist with YouthCare's work to empower youth to succeed.

So, after a year of volunteering, we've learned quite a bit. Here are a few of my take-aways.

1. Everyone cares how they look.

As a teenager, as far as I was concerned, my clothes and the music I listened to defined me. They helped communicate to the world who I was, what I liked and what I valued. They mattered. Just because someone doesn't have a predictable roof over his or her head, doesn't mean that he or she should be grateful for any old sweatshirt. To the contrary, if you only have one outfit, and you are on your own, what you are wearing becomes that much more important to you. And, if we can give them that sense of self and still make sure their clothes are professional, then it all comes together. 

2. You either did or did not learn a lot from mom and dad. 

One of the most moving parts of this experience is watching my husband style the young men. So far, I've seen him teach three fellas to tie a tie. He talks with them about their measurements, about fit, about coordinating pieces. One young man told us that he had never had someone take that kind of time before. It was incredible. 

People often assume that everyone has a person, at least one person, who takes the time to explain the world to them. To show them how to tie a tie. But, they don't. And if a young man, for instance,  missed the opportunity for a trusted adult to guide him through these rituals of society, it's likely that he either doesn't know who to ask or may not want to reveal to others that he doesn't know.

Then what? He doesn't even have the opportunity to wear a tie to a job interview? It's the little things that can make all the difference.

3. Sometimes too much attention is too much attention.

This one was big for me. Because we know that many of these kids haven't received a lot of one on one attention in their lives, we wanted to give them the same experience that a client would receive. After all, as a personal stylist, it's all about the client. 

But, this level of attention can be a lot to digest. Every person is different and some folks just need a little space. 

4. There's functional and then there's functional. 

When I work with clients, we're talking about what is functional for their lives. Can they sit on the floor with their kids while still rocking their work attire, for instance? With homeless youth, function is at an entirely different level. If a youth is still homeless, can he/or she carry these clothes? Where will he store them? Can she walk in these shoes? I mean REALLY walk in these shoes. 

5. Everyone wants to help.

It's hard to say what is the most powerful part of this work. But, somewhere at the top of the list is the outpouring of support from friends, clients, blog readers and the like. And, thank goodness. These sessions are only possible if we have enough clothes and shoes for the graduates. In fact, we're considering increasing the number of sessions, but that is only possible if we have enough donations of clothing. So, thanks to each of you who has given so far and to those that will give in the future. I know you can't be there to see it in person (and we don't photograph the youth); but the perfect dress or pants really can transform someone's life. Really. 

So, at this time of year when we all count our blessings, the Poplin team and I will be thanking the good folks at YouthCare for looking out for these kids and giving us all opportunities to be a part of the effort.