Volunteer Uses Fashion As a Tool to Help Girls Succeed

Daily Point of Light # 5864 Nov 4, 2016
Mary Warner is a super volunteer that runs Ms. Mary’s Boutique, a “shopping event” that’s named after her.  It allows the girls at PACE Center for Girls of Jacksonville, Florida to shop for new or gently used clothes and accessories, through an incentive point system. Mary is today’s daily Point of Light award honoree, and Points of Light spoke to her to learn more about Ms. Mary’s Boutique and why her work is so important.
Mary Warner volunteers for PACE Center for Girls of Jacksonville./Courtesy PACE Center for Girls of Jacksonville
You are heavy involved with Ms. Mary’s Boutique, formerly known as the Clothes Closet, at PACE Center for Girls of Jacksonville. Can you tell me how you got involved with this?
About 14 years ago, a man at work [suggested an idea.]  I was president of the local chapter of NARBW, National Association of Railway Business Women, at the time.  And he recommended that since we were a women’s organization and this school [PACE Center for Girls] was for girls that I might want to learn more about it.  We were quite impressed [with the school] and one of the handouts that they gave us was a “wish list.” And one of the things was to run Clothes Closet.
Can you tell us more about the program, when you were first introduced to it?
It was not what I anticipated. I thought I’d go straighten up some clothes for them or something.
But they had half a dozen black trash bags of clothes, which they laid out on tables and the girls could come and “buy” them, with points they earned for positive behavior. So, I said to several of my friends, “This is not exceptional. This is not acceptable.” And so we started putting out the word to all our friends at church and at my company, if their kids had new or gently used clothes in their closet, “Could I please have them?”
We used to do it, 14 years ago, in one day. We’d set-up in the morning and the girls shopped in the afternoon.
Through your service, how has this program changed?
We grew so large!
I went to a store going out of business and bought some racks and instead of just laying the things on tables, we started sorting them by size and hanging them up. And it would take the better part of a day to set-up and the next day the girls would come in.
Volunteers organize clothing on racks for Ms. Mary’s Boutique./Courtesy PACE Center for Girls of Jacksonville
Anything that’s free has no value. So, they earn them with their points. So, it’s an incentive program. We’ve grown from just some slacks and jeans and shirts to… jewelry, shoes and all kinds of things that young girls like. We do it quarterly now. You want to offer them appropriate seasonal clothes. It has also grown that I help [the girls] get prom dresses and we do the same thing. We set-up by sizes and then the girls come and get prom dresses, shoes and purses.Another thing that I did, I put out the word that anyone who has high end shopping bags or any other nice store bags to please bring them to me. I wanted the girls to carry their things on the bus looking like every teenager! 
Can explain a bit more about the points system used to help the girls “purchase” these items?
Things like maybe a girl has been habitually late…and when she shows improvement, either her teacher or her counselor will award her points. And also, as they improve, they will move up in levels, not grade levels…this is in their level of improvement. The higher they go in their levels, the more that they get to come and get first choice to purchase items. These girls are 12-18 years old.
Can you explain what it’s like on the shopping days?
(Laughs) It’s so exciting. They just can’t stop talking “Oh, look at this blouse. Oh, look at this shirt. Oh I want this.” But also I saw one youngster who looked like she was probably a [size] four standing over my extra-large rack. And I very quietly went over to her and said, “Sweetheart, do you realize that you are looking at the extra-large clothes? And she said, “Yes, Ms. Mary I do. But I’m looking for something for my grandmother that I live with. Now, when they reach a point [like this]… I know that’s self-improvement.”
Why do you think this work so important?
I have a daughter, a granddaughter and a great granddaughter who have had very good lives. And I think that every child, and especially young girls, deserve the same kind of life. And if there’s anything that I can do to improve their quality, I want to do that. I want these girls to have hope. I want them to have a future.  I have had heard some stories from some of these girls that are heart breaking. But then you see them — because some of them come back later after they’re in college or doing other programs and come help me — which gives me an idea that we have improved their lives.
Volunteers for Ms. Mary’s Boutique pose for a photo./Courtesy PACE Center for Girls of Jacksonville
Do you see yourself continuing this work for as long as you can?
Absolutely. Also, I am training a couple of ladies to take over for me when I can no longer do it. I don’t want it to stop. I don’t want it to change. I want it to keep advancing in the way that we display the clothes and help the girls. Because not only are we helping find items to wear, but we are showing them good role models. I’ve had young career women come and volunteer and they get into conversations with the girls and so they look to them and think, “That could be me. I could do that.”
What do you hope that people reading this will be inspired to do?
I hope they would realize that there are many, many ways to give back to the community and to improve the lives of our future generations. You never know how this impacts other people.
Mary strongly believes that people can volunteering, doing what their passionate about, to helps others. To follow Mary’s inspiring lead, check out All for Good, to find a service project in your area.