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Suit Up, Show Up drive transforms boys into men

Published Feb. 27, 2014

From every indication, two-button and three-button suits converted a small space inside the Children's Board of Hills­borough County into a mini showroom you might find at the Men's Wearhouse.

Yet they only appeared to be suits. Magical capes and empowering costumes really hung from the racks, and every young man who found the perfect fit transformed into a superhero.

You need only witness one recipient to see the glow that came with each suit.

He initially struggled to find a fit. With long arms and a slight build, sleeves came up short in the smaller sizes and the larger sizes engulfed his frame. But when he finally found a forest green suit coat that perfectly accented his angles, a beaming smile emerged, his chest stuck out a little farther and a confidence began to emerge.

If clothes make the man, these suits made them super men. They strolled out of the restrooms donning their new gear like the man of steel emerges from a phone booth, ready to conquer the world.

Officials from the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa witnessed this conversion over and over again on Monday.

The nonprofit, spurred by special projects manager Julie Rocco, arranged the effort, called "Suit Up and Show Up," with the help of a suit drive partnership with Men's Wearhouse. Other gently worn suits and ties simply came from donors looking to make a difference.

"It was really a rite of passage," said Ernest Coney Jr., CDC of Tampa's executive director. "You really saw them go from being teenagers to young men, from a sense of mediocrity to a spirit of excellence."

Many of these young men, more than 60 in all, came from the Tampa Housing Authority's Youth Build program as well as Bowers Whitley Career Center, South County Career Center, and Gary Adult, Tampa Bay Tech and Middleton high schools. Others just signed up after seeing a flier.

The idea centered on giving at-risk minority males an opportunity to engage with minority male professionals eager to empower them with knowledge, motivation and guidance.

These young men, ranging in age from 16 to 24, received so much more than just a handout at the daylong leadership retreat.

The seminar also included motivational speeches and seminars about personal responsibility, goal setting and fulfilling the roles in their lives.

The suits, however, proved to be an equally significant contribution. The fortunate may have received one suit to attend church, or a prom or homecoming dance. For many, however, these suits were the first one they ever owned.

And some had to be taught how to tie a tie.

At the end of the day, Coney spoke to the group, imploring them to become "a dream in motion instead of a dream deferred."

He shared that two years ago, the first suit he purchased as a donation was for a young man who was being buried.

"Overall, I wanted them to know we have folks who are willing and eager to invest in them, who want them to know that their lives can become anything they want it to become.

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"I wanted them to understand to be prepared for any opportunity that comes their way, and the suit represents being prepared."

"Suit Up and Show Up" isn't just a mantra for these young men, it's a call to action for a community that can help them.

That's all I'm saying.