Mom's Legacy to Change Lives Continues with Gayles Closet

Gayle Cheeks-Harrell was a stickler for professionalism.

As a career specialist who worked to help rehabilitate and prepare substance abuse patients to return to the workforce, she knew that how you looked on the outside was as important as what you knew on the inside.

Members of the Virginia Beach campus open Gayles ClosetWhen she passed away last May, her son Eric Harrell, Virginia state director of marketing and communications at Bryant & Stratton College, wanted her legacy to live on.

Today it does, through the Bryant & Stratton students who are wearing her closet full of fine professional threads to succeed in interviews, and life.

“She had a passion for fashion and a passion for helping people overcome their challenges and succeed,” Harrell said. “Helping others by using her clothes is a perfect fit.”

The items were split between the Hampton and Virginia Beach campuses in a program called Gayle’s Closet, a place where students can come and choose professional clothing to use for job interviews. Though all three Virginia campuses’ career services departments always had career closets, they were not always well stocked.

When Gayle’s clothes arrived, they not only filled a need, they invigorated the program. Her former co-workers at the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, where she served as the substance abuse rehabilitation coordinator, raised $300 for the clothing closet and donated four more boxes of professional wear.

As word of the clothing drives spread, more clothes were donated from across the state. Ronda Toll, market director of career services, said a retired couple who worked on Wall Street brought all the suits, ties and jackets that served them during their executive tenure.

“Our phones are ringing off the hook,” she said. “People are bringing beautiful, high quality items. Some even still have tags on them. It’s been pretty exciting.”

The closets now are stocked to help men and women of all sizes.

Toll said students keep the clothes they use, so they are not just prepared for interviews, but also for their first few days on the job. In a modern age when fashion has become lax, the opportunity to wear higher end clothing can boost a student’s entire outlook.

“Dressing up has kind of fallen by the wayside, even in church you don’t see a lot of people in ties and suits anymore,” Harrell said. “With these career closets students who may not have the resources to buy a nice outfit can come and find something that makes them feel good.

“When they wear it, it puts them in a different frame of mind, they feel a lot more confident in themselves and successful,” Harrell said.

In fact, Harrell said, his mother’s legacy will help to brighten the future.

“We say the clothes in Gayle’s Closet may not change the world, but the person wearing them might,” he said.