The West Chester University Foundation will honor a Kennett area woman next week as Woman of the Year for helping disadvantaged women enter the work force.
Mary Pat Knauss, board president of Wings for Success in Frazer, is to be honored May 1. Wings For Success provides work-appropriate clothing that helps economically disadvantaged women get proper attire for job interviews and promotions. The nonprofit agency has helped more than 8,000 women in Chester County during the past 16 years.
A retired Hewlett-Packard executive with a degree in chemistry from West Chester University, Knauss has an MBA from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Whether we like it or not, first impressions matter,” Knauss said. If financially struggling women don’t have the proper attire, she adds, “they will often get overlooked for a job — and they can’t afford it.”
Knauss said 80 percent of women who Wings for Success helps are single mothers, and 95 percent earn less than $10,000 a year.
“It’s quite a dichotomy,” she said. “On one hand, we live in one of the wealthiest counties in the country, and on the other hand, there is considerable hidden poverty. Poverty won’t go away, so these women continue to need services. There is so much need in our community, and it’s extra special to give back to the community you live in.”
Knauss said her “wake-up call” came when she was in her mid-40s, after her mother and mother-in-law both died within nine months of each other.
“I knew right then there was more I needed to do with my life,” Knauss said. “Our life is finite. Keith (her husband) and I worked at finances, and I was able to retire with the intent of giving back to the community. When I started in business, there were not a lot of women, so I really appreciate women helping women.”
Knauss has helped Wings for Success grow and is using her corporate management skills to help the nonprofit become sustainable.
Wings for Success is now looking to expand by adding a second office in southern Chester County.
“I was lucky to have a choice to work,” Knauss said. “They women I’m helping really don’t have a choice. They have to work. They need support. They need help. And I really like helping women. I’m feeding my soul, not my bank account.”
The agency has financial eligibility requirements, and referrals come from domestic violence centers, homeless shelters and food cupboards. Funding comes from foundation grants and fundraising initiatives.
Wings For Success has a proven track record of helping low-income women become successful. The program helps women to get a professional outward image, and they grow their inner self-image to feel confident seeking employment, succeeding in the workplace, and becoming financially self-sufficient. Not only do they get free clothing, they also learn how to dress for an interview and are provided with up to two weeks of outfits. Each woman is guided by a personal clothing stylist who ensures a proper fit.
The Woman of the Year Award recognizes a woman who displays leadership and service qualities worthy of special recognition. It is awarded for distinguished and exceptional achievements in her profession or volunteer activities that have positively impacted women or girls.
The awards program is a fundraiser for the Women in Leadership and Service Student Scholarship Program.
Knauss also serves on the board of the Kennett Run Charities and volunteers with Longwood Gardens. As a member of the Business Advisory Council for the West Chester University School of Business, she supports the dean of the Business School in achieving excellence and relevance in its endeavors. She also serves on the board of trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Mill Creek.