CityCurrent, powered by the Lipscomb and Pitts Breakfast Club, April 28, 2017
A friend recently shared that her least favorite line of work had been retail. When asked why, she said partly because it was challenging to work with customers who became frustrated when clothing they tried on did not fit them well. They’d walk into the dressing rooms happy but leave feeling angry, saddened, defeated. Perhaps most of us can relate to my friend’s experience in some way; I have certainly had days when I walked out of a store’s dressing room and could not get to my car fast enough to vent my disappointment. How we feel on the inside can be, and often is, affected by what we are wearing- whether we believe it fits perfectly or doesn’t fit well at all. Kyle Bennison, program director for Memphis Athletic Ministries (MAM), understands this correlation; when he thought of ways in which young men part of MAM’s Career Readiness Program (CRP) could be rewarded for their progress and growth, one pressing thing considered was the provision of business attire they could wear to the interviews, and subsequent job assignments, for which they had been preparing throughout the course of the program. By way of fate and a few phone calls, MAM’s collaboration with the Memphis Suit Project was forged.
For young men like Cardarrius Jones and Keith Goins, receiving a custom fitted suit, though a gift in their eyes, is actually an earned reward in Bennison’s. They were selected from a group of CRP students (who meet weekly) because of the change that has emanated from the inside out; because of the commitment they have both shown to becoming better students, better people; because of their dedication to becoming the best son and the best big brother, whether their little brothers are biological kin or the younger boys at MAM who now look up to them as examples of how to be and who to be.
Cardarrius, in his third year with the CRP, has been going to MAM’s Grizzlies Center since third grade (he is now a senior in high school.) As we converse there is a humility carried over from his responses to his reflections on how MAM has helped him become a person whom others admire. He smiles when thinking back to the recent fitting session, during which his measurements were taken so that his suit would fit just right, a detail that sets Memphis Suit Project apart from other organizations. Cardarrius doesn’t even have the finished product yet and already he feels different. “I’m excited,” he says. “I’m used to wearing just regular pants and t-shirts. Jeans and shirts.” He credits MAM for getting him career-ready and shares that one of the most important lessons he has acquired in the process is how to be a leader: by observing Coach Kyle (as Bennison is known to the students) and by implementing what he’s learned over the past three years. And we know every great leader needs a great business suit!
Over the past eight months since Keith joined the CRP, he has encountered a cornucopia of positive experiences coupled with coinciding emotions, particularly as it relates to his family. He smiles, too, as we talk about the upcoming ceremony when he will be presented with his suit, but a greater smile forms when he begins to speak about his mother. “She’s so proud of me,” Keith says, considering how many times she asserted this after learning he was one of the young men selected to receive a suit. “It’s my first suit,” he continues, and as the youngest of his siblings understands how many eggs have been put in his basket of impending success. There are quite a few pauses during my time spent speaking with Keith, as he looks back at where he started and ahead to where he is going. “MAM is helping me to help my family,” he quietly states before returning to the subject of his custom fitted suit. “Yeah, my Mom is really proud of me.”
Following my conversations with Cardarrius and Keith they return to the gym and join their respective youth leadership teams (another program offered by MAM). While Kyle and I walk outside we discuss, in broad terms, how there is so much more to these young men’s lives than meets the eye. For some, like Keith, a ceiling may have been set early on in his life that he now understands is capable of being broken through. For others, like Cardarrius, they have progressed in leaps and bounds but still, through no fault of their own, are coming just short of the finish line- such as mastering necessary interview skills but not having the financial means to purchase a nice suit in which to attend interviews. We know that first impressions very much matter; Memphis Suit Project and MAM are making sure that these young men stand out in ways that matter so that they can continue to grow in those areas that matter most. They have faced the impossible, sometimes survived the unthinkable and continue to succeed in ways that were, by some, considered undoable. They have earned every fiber and every stitch of which these suits are made. They have earned this opportunity to show on the outside what incredible transformation has taken place on the inside. We can all feel happy about that.