Disadvantaged students interview in style, thanks to a Creek professor

Atlantic Technical College professor Debra Oistacher looks forward to her Nov. 11 birthday party each year. On the invitation, she includes the requisite details: when, where and a reminder not to bring gifts.

No gifts? Instead, the self-styled “professional do-gooder”  asks party attendees to bring something different—an article of gently worn business attire. The donations go to Oistacher’s organization, The Interview Closet, which gives economically disadvantaged students access to professional clothing.

“These students are able to be employed, and they want to have a career—they just need some extra help to get there,” says Oistacher, who oversees Atlantic Tech’s career placement program, which assists special-needs students with job searches.

In 2009, her sixth year at Atlantic Tech, which serves students in high school and beyond, Oistacher noticed a growing number of students who didn’t have appropriate clothing for job interviews. “In addition to having a learning disability, they [didn’t have the money],” she says. “Eventually I said, let’s see what we can do.”

She began scouting the Coconut Creek-based campus, asking for slightly used interview-appropriate attire. After speaking with the campus bookstore manager, she was offered a small space in the back to start her vision. To fill the space with clothing, she decided to throw herself a birthday party and ask for donations. Oistacher will never forget how her friends and family came through.

“It wasn’t that I had that many people come, but those who did were incredibly generous,” Oistacher says. “A friend of mine who owns a dry cleaning company even loaned me a rack.”

After that weekend, the closet was assembled and open for business. Students started to book appointments, meeting with Oistacher and picking out a new outfit that was theirs to keep.

In addition to the contributions made by the Interview Closet, the career placement program now has an advisory board through which businesses, city commissioners and other interested parties also assist the students. Businesses such as Al Hendrickson Toyota and politicians such as Coral Springs commissioner Joy Carter and Coconut Creek commissioner Sandra Welch sit on the board.

“The advisory board is full of kindred spirits,” Oistacher says.

The Center for Independent Living of South Florida, a nonprofit that empowers individuals with disabilities, also is represented on the board; it provides bus passes for students, so they have access to transportation for interviews or their jobs.

Even after the interview process is over, the board and The Interview Closet continue to advocate for the students.

“If you need a background check or nonslip shoes to start a job, we provide that for you as well,” Oistacher says. “We get you started with anything you need for a job.”

As the eight-year anniversary of The Interview Closet approaches, it’s receiving a makeover at the school—including relocation and expansion. The construction program at Atlantic Tech has been building dressing rooms and installing racks. The renovations are scheduled to be completed this fall.

To donate to The Interview Closet, email Oistacher at debra.oistacher@browardschools.com.