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Rebecca Dowdell, associate director of University Student Apartments, oversees a clothing collection on campus to help women with limited resources put together a work wardrobe.

By Brooke Adams, communications specialist, University Marketing & Communications

Want to help?

Rebecca Dowdell is collecting winter clothes, especially coats and boots, to donate to the Junior League’s Women Helping Women project.

Items can be dropped off at her office in University Student Apartments, 1945 Sunnyside Avenue, during business hours.

For more than two decades, Rebecca Dowdell has helped women with limited resources look their best while seeking or starting a new job.

Dowdell collects and sorts clothes for the Junior League of Salt Lake City’s Women Helping Women project, which provides professional clothing for women just entering the workforce — often due to a change in life circumstances.

“I am a thrifter at heart,” said Dowdell, associate director of University Student Apartments. “I go to thrift and estate sales and see so many good clothes out there and I know the struggle these women go through to be able to get to be self-sufficient.”

Dowdell was an administrative assistant for the vice president for diversity’s office when she first got involved in the project. Deedee Corradini, who served on several of the office’s outreach committees, had just been elected mayor of Salt Lake City.

“One of her goals was to help women who had gone through job training and self-sufficiency programs but didn’t have the money to buy clothing for work,” Dowdell said.

PHOTO CREDIT: University of Utah

Rebecca Dowdell, associate director of University Student Apartments.

Corradini sought the U’s support in a clothing drive project and Dowdell became the point person. The Junior League signed on to help and Pykettes, a clothing manufacturer, offered use of its warehouse.

By 1996, when Dowdell took a new job with University Student Apartments, Pykettes had gone out of business and the mayor’s project shut down. But Dowdell was determined to keep going.

Dowdell started her own clothing closet using space in a building adjacent to the housing office on Sunnyside Avenue. The Junior League also opened its own clothing boutique. Women who visited Dowdell’s closet were able to choose five to seven complete work outfits, thanks to generous donations from women at the U.

Over the years, Dowdell worked with hundreds of women who showed up in scrubs or torn jeans and flip flops and “you knew that was all they had.” Most of the women who have visited the closet are between the ages of 25 and 55, she said, and many are single parents.

One experience stands out for Dowdell.

A woman arrived at the campus closet wearing overalls. She was about seven months pregnant and had left a domestic violence situation; she was living in her truck. The woman explained to Dowdell that she had only a few clothing items and needed something to wear to an interview for a job on campus. Dowdell helped the woman pick a few outfits. Weeks later, the woman called to let Dowdell know she had gotten the job.

“She was just thrilled she could get clothes from our closet because she never could have afforded a work wardrobe otherwise,” Dowdell said.

The two closets operated separately for about a decade. In 2007, Dowdell decided to join her efforts with those of the Junior League and shuttered her closet.

Today, Dowdell holds periodic clothing drives on campus for the Junior League’s clothing boutique, where she also volunteers.

“I am the sorter right now,” Dowdell said. “I’ve been doing it so long it’s easy to know what we keep and what we don’t.”

Dowdell leaves the job of deciding what is trendy and what is not to younger women who volunteer with the Junior League.

“I tell them ‘You can be the ugly police’ and if they think an outfit is ugly and no one will want it that is fine with me,” she said.

Donated clothes that aren’t work-worthy or are too out-of-date are given to other nonprofit groups; fancy dresses are given to high schools that provide prom dresses for students who can’t afford them.

Dowdell estimates that as many as 25,000 women have been helped — through the mayor’s project, her closet and the Junior League’s efforts —  since the project’s inception in 1996. The need for help has, if anything, increased over time due to more openness about domestic violence, fluctuations in the economy and stagnant wages for entry-level jobs, she said.

“My mom came from the Deep South and she had an attitude you were part of a community and you helped everybody you could potentially help, even if you didn’t have a lot,” Dowdell said. “That is the environment I grew up in and this is the niche I found that satisfied my thrifty side and my want-to-help side.

“You can’t solve all their problems but you can certainly solve one problem and that is their need for clothing when they can’t even afford to buy something at a thrift store,” she said.