Shalimar Pabon didn't see the pink slip coming. She didn't expect a yearlong search for another steady, full-time job that forced her to seek welfare benefits for her five children and herself.
And she didn't expect to dazzle herself with a navy blue interview suit, rouge to add a glow to her cheeks, a touch of gloss on her lips and a brightly colored necklace and earrings.
"Oh wow, my mother's going to have a heart attack when she sees me like this," Pabon said, admiring herself in a mirror as the staff at Dress for Success watched. "You guys don't know how proud my children and mother are going to be."
As workers continue to lose their jobs in the nation's worst economy in decades, many, including 27-year-old Pabon, are getting wardrobe assistance that they hope can help them land work.
Laid-off workers and others without jobs are showing up in growing numbers at the affiliates of nonprofit groups such as Dress for Success and Career Gear. Because of the increased demand, both New York-based organizations are fielding more requests to add affiliates across the country.
The suits are free, but the groups serve only job seekers who are referred by job-counseling organizations. Still, a wide range of people are coming, from penniless men just out of prison to great-grandmothers who support themselves.
Since the recession began in December 2007, the economy has lost 6 million jobs while the unemployment rate has nearly doubled to 9.4 percent.
The Harrisburg office of Dress for Success is in an old brick building in a section of downtown struggling with blight.
Inside is a dressing room, mirrors and racks of donated suits, skirts, blouses, slacks, purses, shoes, jewelry and makeup. They're the tools essential to impressing interviewers and making job seekers feel great about themselves, said Ruth Koup, who directs Dress for Success South Central PA.
It's not just the sharp, new look, but the shot of encouragement they get from Koup and the other women who help them pick out the clothes, say clients such as great-grandmother Elsie "Kymm" Myers, 61.
In Boston, many of the Career Gear clients are men with a criminal history who get a week or more of interview counseling before they pick out a suit. To attend counseling, they are given a shirt and tie if they don't have one.
"They talk about how different it feels when they ride the train, when people don't move away from them like they're a threat," said affiliate director Alan Spencer. "People actually have conversations with them . . . and they feel great about it."
Tonja Coles started work as a licensed practical nurse in Harrisburg in June after she went to Dress for Success where, she said, she felt "pampered." Before that, she had no suit and no idea what she would wear to an interview, the 26-year-old said.
"I think the interview outfit really gave that first impression like I was ready for work and I was a dependable person and looked like I am to be taken seriously, like I take my job seriously," Coles said.
In Colorado, Donna Wooten is hoping for the same success. She was coming off a disappointing round of interviews when she went in to Dress for Success in Denver recently.
Wooten, 41, who hasn't worked since she was fired in February as an accounts payable specialist, got more than just a suit: a pair of shoes, a purse and jewelry — and interview techniques.
At the Dress for Success office in York, Pa., a frustrated Marcy Reberdy arrives. The recently divorced mother of two sons is looking for a job for the first time in a decade and has come to live with a cousin in Pennsylvania after a fruitless six-month search in Colorado.
Her resume is packed with volunteerism. But on the airplane to Pennsylvania, Reberdy, 35, knew she needed help.
"I realized I was going to need to repackage myself," she said.
Back in Harrisburg at Dress for Success, Pabon selected a navy blue blazer with matching skirt and a white blouse. Volunteer Gail Steinmetz gave Pabon advice on when to button the blazer and how to tie a scarf around her neck.
"Turn, hold, wrap around the neck," Pabon repeated.
Pabon's journey began when she was laid off as a warehouse supervisor. It always had been easy for her to find work — she has experience as a medical assistant and nurse's aide — until now.
Temp jobs, welfare cash assistance and food stamps have helped in the meantime. Now she is preparing for interviews with two insurance companies, each looking for an administrative assistant.
She gets a coupon for a free haircut or manicure from a local beautician's school. Then she leans over boxes of makeup samples and applies enough to make her face glow. At the end, boutique coordinator Cyndi Gerst takes her photo.
"I'm going to knock them dead," Pabon declares, folding her new clothes into shopping bags. "The job is mine."
Then she looks up, as if to explain her enthusiasm: "You've got to claim the job."