Andrea Vega couldn’t believe what she saw in the mirror. Staring back at her was a woman wearing a long-sleeved blue blouse, dress pants and chic ballerina flats—perfect for her new job as an insurance agent at a local firm.
The dressing room at Wings For Success’ Kennett Square “boutique” is a far cry from Walmart, where Vega worked as a greeter and later in the fitting room of the apparel department. The entry-level job didn’t bother Vega as much as the hours it required. She worked nights and overnight, and that cut into time with her 4-year-old son, who has autism and requires visits with occupational therapists and other experts. “There’s a lot of follow-up work that I could do at home with him at night,” she says.
Vega’s story is like those of many other Wings alumni. They work throughout the region in offices, healthcare, retail stores and other settings. Wings supplies everything from scrubs to khakis to dresses, all free of charge. “Many women are reentering the workforce or entering it for the first time, and they don’t know their real clothing size,” says Jill Laufenberg, executive director of Wings For Success.
Laufenberg joined the organization in 2017, almost 20 years after it was formed by a group of Chester County women. Inspired by an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show and the Welfare to Work Initiative, Laurie Todd and her friends combed through their closets and donated gently worn items to women transitioning into the workforce. Located in West Chester at the time, the organization was incorporated in 1998, having already clothed 40 women through local social service agencies.
Vega heard that Wings For Success had opened a second location near her home in Kennett Square. At that boutique and its flagship location in Frazer, Wings provides free clothes, bras, shoes, jewelry, handbags and other accessories, most of it donated by local women. All undergarments are new, purchased at deep discounts. Wings’ clients receive complimentary one-hour sessions with trained, volunteer stylists who sort through Wings’ racks of clothes to find appropriate, well-fitting outfits.
Like many of the women Wings serves, life had taken Vega on several detours. She didn’t graduate from college until she was 35—doing so with honors. A lover of languages, she grew up speaking English and Spanish. With help from library books and her Kennett Square neighbors, she taught herself Chinese, Greek, Italian and the Indian dialect Gujarti. “I’m definitely not fluent, but I can speak a little bit of each language,” she says.
Vega’s dream of working in international business took a lengthy hiatus when her son was born. “I spent years in my mom cocoon,” she recalls. “But when he started school, I knew it was time to find a job that’s better for my family.”
Vega passed her insurance exam with flying colors and easily landed her agency job. “It felt like a new start with great potential for me and my family,” she says.
But as her start date approached, Vega realized she needed work-appropriate clothes and didn’t yet have the money to pay for them. She filled out a Wings For Success application and got an appointment the same day. “What I saw [in the mirror] was about so much more than the clothes,” Vega says. “It was about the experiences that brought me to that point and the chapter of my life that I was about to start.”
Since its founding, Wings has served more than 12,000 women. The vast majority—74 percent—are from Chester County. The rest come from Delaware and Montgomery counties, Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del. “What draws them are the quality of the clothes and the quality of service,” Laufenberg says.
Some hear about Wings For Success through word of mouth; others are referred by more than 80 social service agencies. More and more of the women Wings For Success serves are millennials, a vast majority under 34. Laufenberg’s next challenge is finding suitable clothes for a younger client base. “Those women need clothes that are appropriate for their workplace—and their age,” she says. Laufenberg is working to build a “next gen” pool of donors. “If we can properly communicate how much our clients would appreciate the clothes, I know millennials will go into their closets and donate what they’re no longer wearing.”
Laufenberg is also facing challenges with funding sources, transportation for women without cars, and securing non-donated items. The good news is that Wings alumni often give back to the organization. Vega already offered two purses to Wings, and her new boss is doing the same. “When I confided to my boss that I’d gone to Wings For Success to get clothes for work, she said, ‘I did, too,’” says Vega.