Pictured: Dana Marlowe, founder of Support the Girls. D.Lag Photography
Do you donate your old bras when you replace them with new ones? Most people don’t, according to Dana Marlowe, founder of Support the Girls - an organization that collects and distributes donations of new/used bras and new sealed packages of tampons/pads to homeless women and girls across North America.
During the summer of 2015, while bra shopping in suburban Maryland, Marlowe realized she wasn’t quite sure of what to do with the bras she’d no longer be wearing. She asked the sales associate Deneen for her advice. “Deneen told me that women who are homeless or are fleeing domestic violence often don’t have any more bras than the one they wear. Often for the rest of their lives,” Marlowe recalls.
She describes this as a “lightbulb moment.” “Bras are expensive and rarely donated. And I had a bunch to give. All the puzzle pieces fit into place. I had always put out bags of clothes to donate, but I’d never thrown in my bras. I had a feeling that could change.”
Building an organization around an issue that’s somewhat taboo isn’t easy. Many people get grossed out when topics of menstruation and homeless are brought up -- and many don’t realize that bras are a real, serious need for health and self-esteem purposes. Marlowe says that ultimately, people need to realize that homeless women are really no different than other women; they still get their period, but it’s even worse to have it in an unsafe and unsanitary place.
In addition to making women more comfortable, Support the Girls aims to enhance health and cleanliness. Providing access to these items can also help save on resources; Marlowe explains that “often, homeless women decide between a box of tampons and a meal. Bras too are considered superfluous items. It’s strange how the attitude ‘if you don’t see it, it doesn’t need to exist’ pervades.”
Moreover, having a properly fitting bra can lead to improved health, dignity, and self-esteem. Marlowe suggests that “women who have properly fitting bras can gain the confidence that may have been lacking before to apply for jobs. Having proper bras under business clothes can honestly make or break an interview.”
While she says it sometimes seems difficult to be taken seriously, Marlowe points out that Support the Girls is also quite lucky: they have a ton of inventory from very charitable donors, and as a result, basements get overflowed, and homeless shelters sometimes have more than they can handle. “I’d like these growing problems to stop eventually, because that means our mission has been accomplished,” Marlowe says.
She finds inspiration from other companies with similar missions, such as Lola, which makes organic tampons; Her Corner, a women’s entrepreneurial hub; and Lively, which makes bras and underwear.
Support the Girls started out of Marlowe’s basement with just a box in the carport to collect. Thanks to social media and some great press in the Washington Post, the organization grew as other outlets -- among them The Today Show, Newsweek, and Yahoo News -- featured it. “Who would have thought bra requests would go viral, not quite like cat videos or Chewbacca mom, but still!” Marlowe says.
After its first donation to a DC shelter, right before Halloween in 2015, Support the Girls exploded.
But with the organization’s increasing recognition came lots of inquiries about how to replicate its mission. In response, Support the Girls started some trial sites across the country, and now, as of February 2017, it has almost 50 global affiliate sites. “From these,” Marlow says, “we've donated 85,000 bras and over 400,000 menstrual products to 155 organizations to help homeless and low income women in need.”
Support the Girls is run entirely by volunteers who are spread out across the country, but they still function as a cohesive community. Volunteers are encouraged and empowered to plan their own events for collections that fit their needs. One volunteer, for instance, collected donations at a 5K because she loves to run, while others have tied it into sorority events or Mardi Bras parties. “We want our women to feel like they are in control of their efforts and there is no real playbook or best way to Support the Girls,” Marlowe explains. “Every collection or donation is a unique success.”
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