A 501c3 Charitable Organization

Bernadette McClair

It’s Never Too Late to Believe in Yourself

Bernadette McClair looked in the mirror and saw the person she wanted to become. The black Tahari pants suit fit just right, its jacket gracefully skimming her waistline and the pant legs hitting just above her new – well, new to her anyway – black pumps. And the best part was that Dress for Success, a non-profit organization whose mission is preparing women in poverty for career advancement and success, was letting her have the whole outfit for free!  Bernadette could hardly believe it; she knew she had the skillset to get the job she was about to interview for, but pulling the right look together on the tight budget she had to maintain was harder.

Her path to that job interview had been neither straight nor smooth. Bernadette was born in  a small, mostly African American town outside Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her parents divorced when she was young and her mother remarried a man who brought violence into the home. School bussing introduced further upheaval, removing Bernadette from the comfort provided by her community and thrusting her into an unfamiliar and not entirely welcoming school dominated by white students. 

Bernadette went south for college, enrolling in an HBCU, but her time there was cut short after her first year. Having fallen for a boy from back home, she followed him to Texas, where he was playing college football, and got married. Her plans to continue her own studies were curtailed by a series of mysterious health problems that would plague her for decades to come. She put college on hold and eventually had two children with her husband, who by then was playing in the NFL, but what might have looked perfect from the outside was far different in reality. The violence and trauma Bernadette had witnessed in her childhood had now become a part of her marriage and so, with no college degree or significant family support to fall back on, Bernadette took the kids and set about forging a different life.

She found a job working as a clerk at Wayne County Community College, where her communication skills and go getter attitude got her noticed. Bernadette began stepping into bigger and more challenging roles. She became a workforce development specialist, a role that took her out into the community, meeting with local businesses and creating opportunities for others like her, single moms and working people who needed the door to opportunity to be nudged open just as little so they could step inside.

During those years, Bernadette had another baby and remarried, creating a blended family of six children. It was in the midst of that busy time that Bernadette’s identical twin sister became desperately ill. She had only months to live unless she could get specialized treatment at the Mayo Clinic. It was expensive, out-of-network care she couldn’t begin to afford. Never one to be thwarted by bad odds, Bernadette started a non-profit to raise the funds. Her work drew the attention of various charities, which covered the full cost of her sister’s travel expenses and care. As her twin recuperated, Bernadette would sit with her in bed, trading stories from childhood – some that brought laughter and others tears – and feeling her faith, which had always been strong, expand even further. 

Bernadette felt driven by a sense of purpose, and once her children got older, it was time to more fully explore what that purpose would be. Even since the day Dress for Success put her in that perfect interview suit, she remained involved as a volunteer. Following a move to Denver, she took that a step further, taking a full-time position with the organization. Among other achievements, she successfully lobbied local businesses to donate and equip a box truck to serve as a shop on wheels for those too far away to access the storefront locations. She increased her community activism with roles on the board of Denver Health and Lotus Network as well as supporting Jackie’s War, a nonprofit for Domestic Violence Awareness, and Fighting Together To Save Lives, a nonprofit for survivors of Breast Cancer, with their social media presence. Most recently, she has taken a development position with Montbello Organizing Committee.

This May, Bernadette will add one more significant achievement to the list. At the age of 55, she will graduate with honors with a BA in community improvement development services, making good on the promise she made to herself to complete her education. If her twin sister, who dropped out of high school in the 10th grade due to an unplanned pregnancy, could go on to get her GED and eventually her Bachelor’s, then she could finish too.  It has taken longer than she thought it would to reach that particular milestone, and there were times when her ongoing health issues and procedures became so onerous that she wanted to give up, but Bernadette never allowed herself to quit. You don’t have to be what happens to you, she believes. She experienced brokenness, but she didn’t let that define her. Instead she found the gift of healing and strength, and that is a gift she gives back every single day.

It’s Never Too Late to Believe in Yourself. And dressing the part doesn’t hurt either!