CAMDEN, N.J. – Under a steady drizzle, Albert Reeder and Jake Walker walked to the dollar store, talking about how they needed to leave the past behind and begin new chapters. Better ones.
They had just left the homeless shelter where they met weeks ago. Reeder had recently been freed after five years behind bars. Walker wore a prison-issued ankle monitor.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a group of men holding suits on hangers surrounded them.
“Hey, you need a tie, brotha?” filmmaker and actor Chris Cream asked Reeder.
Reeder looked puzzled, taken aback. A tie? What?
Kevin Livingston, a burly, bearded man in a snappy gray suit, came over to explain his nonprofit, 100 Suits for 100 Men. The nonprofit aims to fit men who are struggling with unemployment or re-entry after prison with business attire. Its goal is to foster self-esteem, boost confidence, and make the men with new ties believe they can land good jobs.
Livingston was prompted to come to the area by Ajeenah and Troy Riggs, a couple who own the Camden Store. Ajeenah “A.J.” Riggs saw a video about Livingston’s work and invited him to the city she loves.
At the back of the store, barbers cut men’s hair for free. And A.J. Riggs and others helped people write résumés, also at no charge.
Some had heard about the event and showed up. Livingston and others like Cream sought out men on the street.
Livingston put a classic silver tie around Reeder’s neck. The men around him — business owners and advocates for the poor — tried to help him loop it. The last time Reeder, 28, had worn a tie was to a job fair six years ago.
“You gotta get it right,” joked Police Lt. Zsakhiem James.
“I didn’t have no dad growing up so don’t judge me,” Reeder said. “I’ve been shot twice and stabbed in the face. My kids were 2 and 3 when I got locked up. Now they’re 7 and 9. I’m trying to change my whole life. For me. And for them.”
Finally, the tie has a Windsor knot. “I think I just tied a tie,” Reeder gushed.
Livingston fitted Reeder with a gray jacket that looked as if it had been tailored for him. “It’s definitely a blessing. Thank you. Thank you,” he repeated.
With pride, Reeder told Livingston that he will graduate in June from culinary school.
Livingston, 40, started 100 Suits in 2011 while working at a bank. But two years ago, he lost his job and his home and lived in his 2005 Dodge Durango for four weeks. “I went through hard times … so I know what it feels like,” he said.
He has recently seen a surge in donations, both in suits and money, and to date says he has given some 15,000 men suits — along with infusions of self-respect. He said, “I know how it makes a man feel to put on a suit. It makes them feel different. When a man looks different, he moves differently, he acts differently. We want them to walk in here one way and leave another way,” he said.
Walker took advantage of the free haircuts. After Keith Thompson, the volunteer barber, finished his hair, Walker gave him a firm hand shake.
“It’s good to see when people help people who are trying to help themselves,” Walker said. “It makes you see the good in people.”