Ramirez had moved to California from Mexico at age 13, not knowing any English, and lived in a one-bedroom apartment with nine family members. He did well in high school and was accepted into UC Berkeley, but he didn't have the skills to succeed there and dropped out.
When he was preparing to enter the work force, a social worker referred him to Wardrobe for Opportunity to be outfitted at one of its boutiques. The volunteer-based nonprofit organization helps referred low-income clients to "dress for success."
"I didn't believe I could look that good," Ramirez recalled. "I looked impeccable."
The group helps those do not have the means to buy nice clothing and who usually come from backgrounds that have not prepared them for the professional workforce. Referred clients set up an appointment to meet with a "personal shopper," who helps them pick out two complete outfits with shoes and accessories, even underwear and socks, for their interview.
Jan de Urioste, a 30-year Danville resident, has been a volunteer at Wardrobe for Opportunity for more than 10 years. One day she was dropping off some clothes and saw a woman trying on outfits for an interview.
"All my life I dreamed I would wear a suit like this and now I have one," said the woman while she admired herself in the mirror.
"So often we go to our closets and have a selection of clothing and this lady had nothing," said de Urioste. "This showed me that every bit of my effort goes somewhere."
The clothing sites are set up like department stores. Each piece of clothing has a place in the shopping area with tags attached showing the size of the garment - but there are no price tags. Upon receiving employment, clients can return for additional professional outfits.
"I think there is a major need to help. This is the forgotten man and woman that is there," said de Urioste. "If I can make a difference, I am doing some great work."
The organization, based in Oakland, has helped 14,500 men and women since it was founded by Jeri Foster in 1995. Foster had read about similar programs in other areas in a Working Women's magazine and felt this would be her way to make a contribution.
De Urioste jumped in to volunteer in May 1996 and has helped with every aspect from sorting to dressing to buying. She spends 20 hours a month as purchasing manager, buying clothing and accessories that are not commonly donated such as handbags, shoes, hosiery and plus-size garments. The money for these purchases comes from donations.
Her background in retail management for more than 20 years at the Emporium, before it was bought by Macy's, has made de Urioste more than qualified. Plus she still has contacts with vendors from her days working in retail.
The program does more than dress clients. It also gives them tools they will need to interview, lock in a job, and be financially independent. Through career workshops and interview clinics, clients gain the self-esteem needed to go after the jobs they want.
"It gives people the esteem to say, 'I can do this.' And they really want to," de Urioste said. "It's not just the dressing; it's the talking to the volunteers. Many of these people have never heard they looked good before."
At first only women were helped at the Oakland site but it expanded to assist both sexes in 2004. The organization also opened a boutique in Pleasant Hill to help women in Contra Costa County. That facility recently moved to a new space in Concord, which provides 1,200 more square feet, allowing room for men's clothes and a classroom.
"We've started to fill the whole need in all of the Bay Area," said Michelle Augenstein, executive director for Wardrobe for Opportunity.
The nonprofit group hosts an annual fundraising luncheon and a fashion show. The 12th annual luncheon took place this past May and was the most successful to date. The group will host the fourth annual Wardrobe for Opportunity Fall Fashion Show on Oct. 30 at the Rotunda in Oakland.
The group is always looking for volunteers as well as contributions. All clothing must be clean, dry-cleaned, washed or ironed and on a hanger. Monetary donations are greatly appreciated for the items that must be purchased new.
"Come join and be a volunteer for Wardrobe for Opportunity and help a man and a woman get their lives started again," encouraged de Urioste. "As a volunteer it enriches your life and makes it purposeful."
Clothes looking for a home?
What: Wardrobe for Opportunity
Clothing drop-off center: Union Bank of California, 617 San Ramon Valley Blvd., Danville
Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-1 p.m., Saturday
Information: www.wardrobe.org; call (510) 463-4100