BY BARBARA LAKER
CAMDEN, Pa. – Under a steady drizzle on a dreary Saturday afternoon, Albert Reeder and Jake Walker ambled up Haddon Avenue in Camden 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 nearby 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 and colorful loose ties draped around their necks surrounded them.
“Hey, you need a tie, brotha?” local filmmaker and actor Chris Cream asked Reeder, who was dressed in a gray rain jacket and pants.
Reeder looked puzzled, taken aback. A tie? What?
Kevin Livingston, a burly, bearded man in a snappy gray suit, came over to explain to Reeder and anyone else who would listen.
Based in New York, Livingston, 40, is founder and president of 100 Suits for 100 Men, a nonprofit that aims to fit men who are struggling with unemployment or reentry 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.
Haircuts, resume help
Livingston went to Camden because Ajeenah and Troy Riggs, a couple who owns The Camden Store — where everything from trinkets to T-shirts with anything Camden are sold — lured him there.
Ajeenah “A.J.” Riggs saw a video about Livingston’s work and invited him to the city she loves. Starting around 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24, anyone could come by to check out dozens of suits and ties donated by business owners and residents.
At the back of the store, local barbers cut men’s hair for free. And A.J. Riggs and others helped people write resumes, also at no charge.
Some had heard about the event and showed up. Livingston and others like Cream sought out men on the street.
A fresh start
On Haddon Avenue, Livingston put a classic silver tie around Reeder’s neck. The men around him — Camden 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 Camden Police Lt. Zsakhiem James, who stood nearby.
“I didn’t have no dad growing up so don’t judge me,” Reeder said.
In fact, Reeder went on to say his life has been hard.
“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 just for him.
“It’s definitely a blessing,” he said. “Thank you. Thank you,” he kept repeating.
Livingston stepped back to size up Reeder’s new spiffy look and smiled.
With pride, Reeder told him he’ll graduate in June from culinary school and assured him he’ll turn his life around.
No suits fit Walker, who is 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds. So he and Reeder decided to see about getting haircuts at The Camden Store.
Livingston started 100 suits in 2011 while working as a customer service representative at a bank. But two years ago, he lost his job and subsequently his home and lived in his 2005 Dodge Durango for four weeks.
“I went through hard times. I was down on my luck 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.
“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.
“I want them to look at themselves as a king, like royalty,” he said.
Community of support
After each tie and suit found a new owner, Livingston invited the other volunteers to make a fuss.
“Give this brother some love!” he bellowed. “Just look at that brother.”
Back at The Camden Store, Tamika Gee waited while her 15-year-old son, Nathaniel, got a haircut.
“I want this for him to build his confidence, let him know he’s not alone, and the whole community is out here to support you,” she said.
A helping hand
Next up was Walker, 36, who also got his brownish, reddish beard neatly trimmed.
Chuckling, Reeder took a video of Walker in the barber’s chair with his cellphone that had a shattered screen.
After Keith Thompson, the volunteer barber, finished Walker’s hair, Walker gave him a firm handshake.
“It’s good to see when people help people who are trying to help themselves,” Walker said, as he walked away.
“It makes you see the good in people.”