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This Red Dress Helped A Woman Find Her Feet Again

And love.

22/07/2016 3:30 PM AEST | Updated 22/07/2016 4:46 PM AEST
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THE red dress.

Melissa O'Connell fell in love with her high school sweetheart. Seven years later they were married.

It lasted seven more years.

O'Connell's husband went to work one day and never came home. He had a brain aneurysm and went to hospital where he lay while O'Connell went to another to give birth to their first child.

Riley was born, and nine days later his father died.

Riley became O'Connell's world for the next six years until a new man came into her life.

Two more children, a marriage and seven years later, O'Connell found herself a victim of domestic violence.

Her friends and family had dwindled away slowly, and it got to the point where she sent her eldest son away too. Riley lived with O'Connell's parents. It was safer, happier there.

"I'd never experienced anything like what I was experiencing," O'Connell told The Huffington Post Australia.

"As a mother you just want to keep everything together and sometimes you just accept things you normally wouldn't."

But being torn apart from her son was the breaking point. It took O'Connell nine times before she eventually left, with the help of a women's refuge and Single Mums Support.

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Melissa O'Connell and son Riley at the Dress For Success annual fundraising event on Wednesday.

"We left a beautiful six bedroom house [in Sydney's North], but it was just a house," O'Connell told HuffPost Australia.

"We moved into a two bedroom house with my parents. We didn't leave with much. I just wanted to get out."

And O'Connell found happiness in the walls of that small home with more voices than rooms. She gradually got her voice back too, along with her health and then came drive.

"You go from being completely broken and then everything eventually starts to feel better again. So I wanted to get back into the workforce," O'Connell said.

The mother-of-three had taken time out of work to have her third son, which didn't leave her with much when she left. Then she found Dress For Success, a charity empowering women in need to get back into the workforce.

Providing corporate clothes, mentoring programs and career support services, the non-profit organisation helps women achieve economic independence no matter what circumstance they're in.

"I remember walking through the door that day and being shocked that a stranger wanted to pamper me so much," O'Connell said.

"And I saw this red dress that I still have. It was just a red dress but to me it was more than that.

"I tried on that many suits. They were black and grey, but I knew that I had to wear the dress."

O'Connell was headed to a job interview in the corporate sector of Kimberly-Clark. She wore the dress, got the job and has been working in the customer care team for more than three years.

"I do believe it was the dress that got me the job," O'Connell said, laughing.

In April, the Sydney arm of Dress For Success reached a significant milestone, dressing 10,000 Australian women since opening in 2009.

More than $70,000 was raised for the organisation on Wednesday night when the charity held its annual event attended by 350 women and men from the arts, business and media sectors.

Surfing champion Layne Beachley, musician and INXS great Kirk Pengilly and Journalist Juanita Phillips were among the personalities dressing up to walk the catwalk at the event, which was dubbed 100 Years Of Power Dressing.

Supplied: Bridgette Grant
Layne Beachley and Kirk Pengilly.

Supplied: Bridgette Grant
Tara Moss.

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Journalists Juanita Phillips and Richard Goncalves.

And O'Connell addressed the room wearing a black dress this time.

"We joke about the red dress but I honestly don't think I would be where I am without it," O'Connell said.

"All I knew was I had an appointment to get an outfit, but it ended up being a whole lot more."

Applauding in the crowd on Wednesday night was Riley and O'Connell's new partner, Jason. Who she met at work.

To donate or find out more about Dress for Success click here.

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