Renee Cooke – Trainer at Cire Community School

Posted November 6, 2019, by Jenny
Renee Cooke – Trainer at Cire Community School

Renee has enjoyed a long career in retail as a Store Manager and Operations Manager before joining the Learn Local Sector six months ago. Here Renee is a part of First Impressions Clothing Exchange which “is operated as a ‘small business’ by women and for women. It is part of Cire Training’s Small Business course and designed to build on the skills of the volunteer staff to enhance their employability opportunities…. For customers, the exchange offers a selection of quality and affordable women’s clothing and accessories suitable for interviews or more formal occasions. Items can be purchased or simply hired to get the look, to get the job!” Read more about Renee’s career change and inspirational work helping her community. 

Talk us through your role and a ‘typical day in the office’

I am a pre-accredited trainer with Cire Services, one of the largest not-for-profits serving the Yarra Ranges and beyond through Cire Training, Cire Community School for vulnerable youth, Cire Children’s Services and Cire Community Hubs. My core responsibilities include mentoring and supporting unemployed women through initiatives such as Cire Training’s innovative Women’s Warehouse Program (WWP), Small Business Course and our First Impressions Clothing Exchange which is a product of WWP. Due to the reach of Cire Training, every day is different. However, for example, at First Impressions a typical day would involve setting up the shop for the day with the women we are mentoring. The team of volunteers who operate the shop vary each day so we chat about the previous week and the one ahead, and set goals and tasks such as merchandising, styling mannequins and unpacking and sorting donations.

Tell us about First Impressions and what inspired it

First Impressions Clothing Exchange is the brainchild of long-term unemployed women in the Yarra Ranges region FOR local women experiencing financial disadvantage.

Under the umbrella of Cire Services, the social enterprise is unique to our region with its innovative and bold approach to empowering women and fostering meaningful community engagement.  

The initiative provides women with quality and affordable clothing suitable for job interviews or other important occasions. However, the benefits and value to the community go much deeper. 

The broader community has enthusiastically embraced the project as volunteer mentors to assist the women on their journeys as well as donations. First Impressions participants have been touched by the random acts of kindness and help from strangers, seldom experienced before.

First Impressions is a real-life training space, mentoring women to stand tall by preparing them for employment. Experienced trainers provide ongoing support to instil confidence, boost self-esteem and develop the skills necessary in the paid workforce, and transferable between jobs. Two long-term unemployed women have already found work largely because of their involvement in helping set up First Impressions. 

Overall, the benefits include

  • Broader community engagement and a social network
  • Empowerment/boosting confidence and self-esteem
  • Upskilling/mentoring to satisfy prospective employer requirements
  • A work-for-the dole partnership with local job provider, Employment Plus, who give participants recognised hands-on work experience 
  • A social network
  • Helping reduce the risk of domestic violence and homelessness in women.

What was your first job and what did it teach you? 

My first job was with Target in customer service. It gave me fantastic insight into the world of retail, teaching me key skills such as communication, merchandising, how to work in a team, visual merchandising, customer service, stock management and work health and safety.

Name the best and worst parts of your job

The best and most rewarding part of my role at Cire is the opportunity to work within the community and helping empower women and support them to make important life choices. The worst part is  trying to convince potential funders how innovative First Impressions is and what it is achieving at so many levels for long-term unemployed women.

Name a career highlight

The Women’s Warehouse program being nominated as one of the top three finalists in the 2019 Learn Local Awards. 

What advice do you wish you’d received before starting the First Impressions program? 

Plan as best as you can and be prepared for roadblocks, which will happen more frequently than expected.

What’s the best tip you’ve received/given about being a trainer? 

Listen and support your students to the best of your ability. Sometimes it’s one step forward and two steps back so it is important to remain positive and keep moving forward. Positivity is infectious and a smile goes a long way.

What’s something you’d still like to learn?

Being new to this cohort, I’m learning all the time… I am keen to continue with further study. You can never know everything – education is key and it’s important to always be feeding your mind and building on your skills.   

What important qualities and skills should people have if they want to start a small business?

To start a small business you need to have a great concept and be passionate about it, and, know your customer and target market, your product and your competition. You need to have a business plan in place and have a sound understanding of budgets, finances and sales prospects. This is also underpinned by passion, determination, and flexible can-do attitude.

What’s next for you?

My current goals are to secure our own rental premises for First Impressions and expand our training and mentoring courses. Also on the radar is the need for a second First Impressions outlet in Yarra Junction where higher levels of socio-economic disadvantage have been identified.


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