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Smart Works Reading Chair Sarah Burns on how far the charity has come and the Duchess of Sussex's impact

PUBLISHED: 10:00 14 May 2019 | UPDATED: 10:01 14 May 2019

Sarah Burns with Ambassador Ginnie Chadwyck-Healey (Photo by Caroline Gratrix)

Sarah Burns with Ambassador Ginnie Chadwyck-Healey (Photo by Caroline Gratrix)

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Sarah Burns, Chair of Smart Works Reading, reveals how far the charity has come since opening three-and-a-half years ago, and the postive impact the Duchess of Sussex's patronage has had

Smart Works. You may not have heard of this charity before the start of the year, but Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Sussex has become their Royal Patron, raising their profile into the stratosphere. And that can only be a good thing.

Smart Works is a UK charity that provides support to unemployed women who are particularly disadvantaged or vulnerable.

Sarah Burns founded and set up the branch in Reading in October 2015. "I've been around from day one!" she says. "In 2012, I retired from a long career in professional services in different HR software companies. I then found myself lacking in confidence and wanting a new direction, so I completed a coaching diploma, and started volunteering at Dress for Success, then Smart Works.

"At Smart Works North London, I spent three years mainly as an interview coach, but also as a stylist, stock volunteer and helping at events. I found so much reward from volunteering. I thought the icing on the cake would be to be able to do this nearer to my home. So with this in mind, I researched the need in the local area and created a business case to open a Smart Works centre in the Thames Valley. In 2015, our Reading doors opened to our first client."

At the core of the Smart Works service is a two-hour appointment, during which time each woman is gifted a complete interview-appropriate outfit, hers to keep and free of charge, and tailored one-to-one interview training, specific to the job that they have the interview for.

"This free, short intervention has a significant impact as our clients start believing in their own ability to succeed," says Sarah. "Once they get the job, they can come back and get a capsule wardrobe to provide workwear to see them through to their first pay cheque.

"These second dressing appointments are magical, as this is where we celebrate that our client got her job! There are less nerves in this session, and it can be fun for the clients to try on lots of new outfits, safe in the knowledge that a new chapter of their lives is about to start. We gift the client with around 6-8 pieces, with the stylists creating a high-quality capsule wardrobe that the client can mix and match, and wear alongside clothes she already has.

"It's amazing to see the transformation in confidence from how a woman presents herself when she visits the centre for the first time and when she comes back having got the job - that transformation is why we do what we do. We give women the confidence, the self-belief and the practical tools they require to start a new chapter of their life.

"We have helped over 1,000 women since we opened and over 60% of our clients go on to succeed at interview, which we're very proud of," Sarah says.

And rightly so.

"This feeling that we're truly helping women is incredible. When we get the call to say that a client has got the job, that's as good as getting a new job ourselves! But it's more than that one moment, it's the whole process that is inspiring. Our centre is a non-judgemental, safe space for women to feel pampered, and reminded of their worth and how much they have to offer the world. The reward and passion I have for what we do gets greater every day; seeing the transformation in each client is phenomenal and being surrounded by daily acts of kindness with donations and partnerships is heart-warming − from someone donating their first work suit to us to help support another woman on her career journey to a corporate women's network making us their charity partner and raising much-needed funds. Seeing and knowing you have played a small part in making a positive difference in someone's life is so very rewarding. It is wonderful to see women, businesses and the local community supporting and helping us all to succeed."

Women are referred to Smart Works by one of the charity's 70-plus referral partners across the Thames Valley, such as Job Centre Plus, The Prince's Trust, Berkshire Women's Aid, Ways into Work and Elizabeth Fry.

"We try to have as many engagement touch points as we can to ensure every woman that may need our help knows about us and can get in contact," says Sarah. "We regularly attend job fairs, community group events and job clubs, to spread the word."

They have developed relationships with retail donors, such as Hobbs, Evans, Burberry, Knomo, Hope and M&S. Donations can also come from local corporate supporters who organise donation drives on their behalf, such as Verizon, Oracle, SAP, Cisco, Microsoft, Waitrose and Field Seymour Parkes. They also receive clothing donations from smaller organisations, such as Women's Institute groups and Women's Networks, plus individuals.

And, of course, they couldn't do what they do without the help of volunteers. At Smart Works Reading, they have over 60 skilled and committed volunteers, including the Board of Trustees, stylists, interview coaches, admin volunteers, communications volunteers and stock volunteers. "Our volunteer team is the backbone of the Smart Works service, and the work they do and commitment and passion they have is invaluable," says Sarah.

In January 2019, the Duchess of Sussex announced she would be the Royal Patron of the Smart Works charity. A champion of women and their rights and her desire to help and support women worldwide makes her a perfect fit. And the charity were honoured to welcome her to their West London centre and see her talk to clients and volunteers.

"It's been wonderful for everyone at Smart Works to have the support of our Royal Patron, HRH The Duchess of Sussex," says Sarah. "We've had increased applications for new volunteers, donations and client appointments since the news of the patronage, which is wonderful.

"The Duchess has a passion for women's rights and we hope her patronage will help shine a light on what we do, and ultimately help more women. We have heard from her previous visits in London about the Duchess' inspiring skills as a stylist and interview coach, notably her empathy, approachability and warmth."

At Smart Works Reading they also have three Ambassadors, who support the charity locally. Nayna McIntosh is the Founder of British womenswear brand Hope, an oasis for women who are vastly under-represented on the high street. "Nayna supports us with donations of clothing and has proven to be a fantastic speaker at our events, including at Smart Talks," says Sarah.

Emma-Jane Taylor, aka The Inspirational Mentor, is the Founder of SHEnetWORKS, author, wellness coach and an entrepreneur running a series of lifestyle businesses. "Emma-Jane runs fundraising events for Smart Works Reading and is helping us to prepare to launch our own Smart Network for our clients, a membership group of professional women who have recently returned to work," Sarah adds.

Their newest Ambassador, Ginnie Chadwyck-Healey, is Founder of VCHStyle and before that worked at British Vogue for 12 years. Sarah says: "Ginnie is a public speaker and advocate for Smart Works Reading, both at fundraising events and on radio. We are grateful for the support from these inspiring local women!"

Nationally, Smart Works want to continue to set up a new centre annually to help more and more women across the UK. "Our goals at Smart Works Reading are to continue to grow, widen our reach, raise awareness and create a sustainable and stable charity, while maintaining a high quality of service and success rate," says Sarah. "We want the service to be accessible to more women who need it."

smartworks.org.uk

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