Two legacies, one mission

This is a story about legacies.

The first is a legacy of a woman, who in her life developed a sense of community for many, helped raised up those who had fallen on hard times and provided smiles for hundreds of people she encountered.

The other legacy is of an organization that has helped to strengthen up a community, empowering women who may have fallen on hard times and provided hope to hundreds of women in Durham and throughout the country.

This is also the story of how these two legacies became intertwined.

Sylvia Lauterborn (Courtesy of Bob Lauterborn)

Sylvia Lauterborn’s at age 21 in a photo taken soon after she became a stewardess for Pan American airlines in 1960. (Courtesy of Bob Lauterborn)

Sylvia’s story: “A compulsion to help”: 

Sylvia Lauterborn was born in a small coal-mining village in Wales. Her mother raised three children on two pounds a week, a coal miner’s meagre wages in those days. She did whatever she could to make ends meet — sewing jobs for neighbors, haircutting and wallpapering. Seeing her mother work so hard to provide for her family helped create a need to help for Sylvia to help those like her.

“Sylvia had a compulsion to help other people, that’s what she wanted to do with her life more than anything,” says Bob Lauterborn, her husband of “49.8” years.

This compulsion to help led Sylvia to do whatever she could, from opening her home to dinners for those that needed a hot meal to going out and helping build houses for Habitat for Humanity. “She really supported many organization, all of them focused on giving people a leg-up in life,” says Lauterborn

Giving women a leg up: Dress for Success

Dress for Success is a worldwide organization that gives professional clothing to disadvantaged women for job interviews and then assists them finding and keeping a job.

“Our mission is to work with women in Durham and the Triangle to gain financial independence and sustain a career,” said Laura Piggott, community and donation relations manager for the Triangle Dress for Success.

Dress for Success came to Durham in April of 2008 through the work of one woman, Pat Nathan. “Ms. Nathan moved back to the Triangle area to take care of her parents and tried to sign up to volunteer at the local chapter of Dress for Success, but found that there was none,” said Piggott.

“This inspired her to begin her own chapter, first in Durham and then expanding it into Wake County as well.” According to Piggott, the organization has now helped over 5,000 women, including 1,600 this year alone,

Legacies come together

In early 2013, tragic events would set the two stories on a path together. Sylvia was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March of this year. Over the next two and a half months, Sylvia was visited by hundreds of friends from all over the world, husband Bob says. She died on Memorial Day.

Sylvia Lauterborn (Courtesy of Bob Lauterborn)

Sylvia just a few months before her death in downtown Chapel Hill. (Courtesy of Bob Lauterborn)

Bob said that one day a few weeks after Sylvia’s passing, a friend, Barbara Dodd, along with Bob’s daughter-in-law, Jill Lauterborn, did something Bob says he would’ve been unable to do on his own.

“They came in and went through all of her clothes,” Bob said,”and packaged up the best of them to give to Dress for Success,” said Lauterborn.

“I never could’ve done that myself. Sylvia made many of her own clothes, so every stitch contained some sort of memory for me. If they hadn’t done it, I would’ve just had a pile of tear-stained clothes,” he said.

Bob said that Dress for Success is exactly where Sylvia would’ve wanted her clothes to go. “It’s an organization that helps people put their lives back together, and that’s something Sylvia was very passionate about,” he says.

Dress for Success helps many women who have to work hard to make ends meet like Sylvia’s mother, with over 80 percent of their clients in Durham being single mothers trying to support kids, according to Piggott.

Piggot said that the biggest legacy that Dress for Success will leave on Durham is the future the children of the mothers it helps have.

“We want to build a cycle of self independence in these communities, to help that cycle grow and spread to the kids,” said Piggott.

She adds that the children of these women are much more likely to maintain the financial independence and stay out of poverty when they grow up if their mothers are able to find steady occupation.

While Dress for Success’ legacy will continue beyond just the women it serves, so too will Sylvia Lauterborn’s.

Sitting in a home furnished with hundreds of memories of Sylvia, Bob Lauterborn has hope for the legacy of his wife and the clothes that she gave to Dress for Success.

“I like to think that there are women out there wearing Sylvia’s clothes who are happier now because of them.”