"Prime Time" is a series featuring people over 50 in the Philadelphia region who are taking on new challenges. They are starting new businesses, dedicating themselves to activism, and becoming a part of the change they wish to see. This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it to nominate someone.

Every Thursday, Mary Campbell, a youthful and vivacious 71-year-old, arrives at Career Wardrobe on South 12th Street, usually with a box of fresh donuts from the Reading Terminal Market.

"I like the people. The staff are amazing, and the clients really want to get ahead," Campbell says. She has been volunteering for about 15 years at the nonprofit, which provides free professional attire for low-income women.

"Seventy percent of our clients come to us through the Welfare-to-Work Program," says Campbell. "They're mostly single moms, 25 to 45, with two school-aged children. I've dressed women who have never worn anything other and jeans and t-shirts. When they look in the mirror and see themselves in a professional suit for the first time, they are surprised and thrilled. They walk out feeling like a million bucks."

When a client enters, she is greeted by a dressing assistant. "We want them to feel like valued customers, as if they were walking into Nordstrom's," says Campbell. Depending on their career aspirations, clients select from attractive racks of professional clothing: tailored jackets, crisp blouses, pants and skirts. There are also scrubs for women who work in day care or healthcare.

Creating a positive self-image

The clothes come from three locations where people can donate professional attire: East Falls Presbyterian Church; Athertyn, an upscale 55+ community in Haverford; and Wardrobe Boutique at 19th and Spring Garden.

Donations that are too casual or dressy for office attire are sold at the Wardrobe Boutique. Campbell calls the boutique "dangerous," because the pickings are so good and the prices are so low. "We're always in need of plus-size clothing, anything from size 16 up," says Campbell, "as well as small sizes, 0 to 2, and accessories."

Sometimes, donations come from the Philadelphia business community and from manufacturers. "We once received 6,000 bras!" Campbell recalls. "Every woman walked out uplifted."

Which leads to another service that Career Wardrobe provides. "We offer a variety of workshops on how to dress appropriately, create a confident self-image and prepare for interviews," says Campbell.

Full service

Since 2003, Career Wardrobe has expanded its services to offer this and other educational workshops for women: job coaching, resume critiques, time management, technology, interview skills and financial literacy.

"When a client gets a job, she returns to select one week's worth of free office attire and to give pep talks to other clients," says Campbell. "We're like McDonald's. Since Career Wardrobe opened in 1995, we've served over 80,000 women, and the numbers go up every day. "

Besides dressing women for new careers, Career Wardrobe holds a holds a "Prom-a-rama" at its Boutique each spring, providing low-income teens with prom gowns, and they have recently launched a menswear pilot program. They also started a co-pay program for college students. "For $10, we outfit them for their first jobs," says Campbell.

Keeping busy is nothing new for Campbell, an East Falls resident who was working on her Ph.D in Archeology at Temple University when she accepted a one-year position teaching history at Arch Bishop Ryan in Northeast Philadelphia. "One year somehow turned into 25," says Campbell who, after retiring from teaching, continued her love of archeology by volunteering at Penn's University Museum three days a week, in addition to one day at Career Wardrobe.

"I get to work with dead stuff at the Museum," says Campbell who has a special interest in Mayan culture and loves to travel. "I take a lot of cruises now that I've learned how to break the code." The code? "I wait until a week before a cruise is scheduled to depart, then I book passage at a discounted rate."

Career Wardrobe is preparing to relocate in the near future from the ground floor of the historic Stephen Girard building on South 12th Street, between Market and Chestnut, to its 19th and Spring Garden location.

"The building is scheduled to be converted into condos. We're going to miss our sidewalk restaurant," says Campbell of the food vendors just outside the front door. "But we will be right next to Community College and will continue to put a smile on the faces of women preparing to re-enter the job market."