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North Bay 95-year-old's nonprofit helping people bloom in journey to self-reliance

North Bay 95-year-old's nonprofit helping people bloom in journey to self-reliance
North Bay 95-year-old's nonprofit helping people bloom in journey to self-reliance 03:28

SAN RAFAEL -- For more than 20 years, a North Bay woman has helped low-income families look good, feel good, and take confident steps toward self-reliance, from welfare to work.

Recently, 95-year-old Barbara Lee embraced a reunion and walk down memory lane.

"You know it's been my joy," said Lee to a group of women staff and volunteers.

Volunteer Natalie Sandell recalled how Lee's passion threaded their lives in service.

"You saw that woman and little child, and they had no shoes on. It was a terrible day, weatherwise, and you said, 'Can't happen here,'" Sandell told Lee.

Lee nodded, "This can't happen here."

Back in 1999, when Lee was 72, she was helping low-income families get back on their feet through Marin County's welfare-to-work program, when she realized they needed professional clothing to get into - and stay in - the workforce.

"You see a need and try to fill it," said Lee.

So Lee founded Bloom to give adults in need two weeks' worth of gently-used clothing, shoes, accessories, and life skills. It was the only nonprofit in the nation to outfit the entire family - including children - for free.

"It's just not easy going to school," Lee said about the importance of providing clothing for the children. "'Cause we all know kids can be very cruel."

Bloom's downtown San Rafael boutique offers a pampered feel during hour-long individual appointments. Of up to 70 clients who come in each month, many are in recovery, abuse survivors, or homeless, and often they leave the boutique transformed.

Emily Elder trains volunteer personal shoppers to fashion a mix-and-match wardrobe of stylish clothing.  

"Many clients walk out of here much brighter and lighter in the way they feel about themselves," said Elder.

Katharine Whipple came in for a wardrobe update, as she looked for her first onsite job since COVID hit.

"It helps to wear something that looks good, feels great," Whipple said.

In fact, her experience at Bloom was such a good fit, Whipple is now working there. Today, Bloom is a program of the YWCA Golden Gate Silicon Valley.

Clients get appointments by referral from dozens of agencies, from social services to the YWCA. Bloom's retail section of gently-used clothing at the front of the store helps support the nonprofit.

Lee is now retired from the nonprofit she founded 23 years ago. But she never tires of hearing of lives that bloomed because of what she planted.

"To be perfectly truthful, it's fantastic," Lee smiled.

So for outfitting working and work-seeking families for free through Bloom, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Barbara Lee.

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