Food, water, shelter, safety, warmth. These are just a few of the concerns that homeless people have daily. But imagine being a woman and worrying about tampons and pads on top of your other issues. The female homeless population is enormous and almost completely neglected, which is why Joanie Balderstone and Rebecca McIntire decided to do something to enhance the dignity of these women in need.
They founded Distributing Dignity, a Camden, New Jersey, nonprofit in 2010 that has since than expanded into New York and Pennsylvania with plans to go national.
In 2009, we were providing assistance to a homeless day center in Camden, NJ by donating gently used business clothes for job interviews. A woman at the day center thanked our group for the clothes and then told us she didn’t have a decent bra to wear underneath them. She wasn’t the only one. So we asked what else they needed. The answer? Pads and tampons.
As women, we couldn’t stop thinking about what it would be like to have an inadequate bra or none at all. Moreover, we couldn’t comprehend rationing out monthly supplies or worse…going without them. Compelled by this newly discovered need, we organized our first “Mardi Bra” party that was held on February 13, 2010. We invited all the women we knew and each guest brought a new bra or a package of pads/tampons. Many women brought bags full of donations. It was a party with a purpose.
We took 80 new bras to Camden along with thousands of pads and tampons. When we were planning the party we were asked about bringing used bras. I consulted with the wisest and most philanthropic woman I knew, my mother. I expressed that I knew these women were homeless, but I really wanted to give them a NEW bra. Without hesitation, my mom smiled and said, “Joanie, just because these women are in need, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the dignity of a new bra.” She was absolutely right.
In 2011, we held our 2nd annual Mardi Bra party and broadened our outreach to include women who had aged out of the foster care system and families in South Jersey impacted by HIV/AIDS. Neither group had ever received donations of these specific supplies before yet both expressed just how much they were needed.
In January of 2012, we lost my mother and were unable to have our party. Knowing my mother wouldn’t want these women to go without, I put the word out on Facebook. Checks and packages began arriving in the mail. Women want to help other women, especially with something so essential. Inspired by my mother’s life of service, ignited by the generosity of our friends and committed to lifting up the Dignity of women in need, we have formed Distributing Dignity.
I have a BA in English from Lehigh University and Rebecca has a BS in Business Management from Lehigh. I’ve worked in publishing and as a teacher. I have also helped 2 friends start and run their own businesses. While that hasn’t influenced the nature of what we do at Distributing Dignity, that experience has been invaluable in our own operations and implementation. Rebecca is a project manager and brings a great deal of business experience to the table.
Distributing Dignity’s mission is to Distribute new bras, pads and tampons, enhancing the Dignity of women in need.
We did a tremendous amount of research and put a great deal of time into planning and structuring how we wanted to function as an organization. Our goal has always been to grow but more importantly, we want to sustain the support we offer and we’ve been careful in our approach.
Our two biggest challenges are time and funding. We are an all-volunteer organization and Rebecca and I both work in addition to running Distributing Dignity. We’re committed to doing what it takes to keep growing and reaching as many women as we can. If we could take this on as our full-time jobs, our growth and outreach would be even more explosive than it’s been. We have been so fortunate to receive a lot of support from people all over the United States. We receive most of our support through in kind donations and that is why we can reach as many women as we do. We have more requests from potential partner organizations than we can fill. The need is prolific and our challenge is making sure we keep growing so we can get to them all. One of the greatest gifts about doing what we do is our relationship with each partner organization. They are our lifeline to the women we serve and they are the ones who really do the hard work. It’s a privilege to support the work they do and make their jobs just a little easier by providing them with product. There are some incredible social workers out there making a real difference in the lives of others and it is an honor to know them.
We believe in what we are doing 1000% and that’s what we communicate with everyone. We’ve stood out because we are one of the first organizations to do what we do. We didn’t do it for attention or accolades but rather because we found an incredibly underserved need out there and we were compelled to do something about it. Simply put, we found the need, put a system in place to address it and talked openly and honestly with other people about what we were doing.
Distributing Dignity exists because my mother taught me to be a strong woman and to be actively involved in helping others. It doesn’t get any more feminist than an organization inspired by a woman, run by two women and for the specific benefit and lifting up of women. We soften that stigma by addressing the need every day. Honestly, I haven’t found many people who are unwilling to talk about it. What we’ve found is people who never thought about this need before and now want to help. We want people to feel good about supporting us. We want people to feel hopeful that they can make a difference because they really can.
Distributing Dignity provides supplies based on each partner organization and what they need. Sometimes we are able to put gift bags together that include a bra, pads and tampons and send it along for a specific woman. Many times, we provide a bulk delivery of supplies for the social workers or program directors to distribute based on their knowledge of their clients. We’ve distributed close to 200,000 pads, tampons and liners and over 5000 brand new bras.
In 2013, as we were just formalizing our nonprofit status, our entire inventory fit in our guest room closet. My then 11 year old niece was over one day to help and saw all of the product. She said to me, “Aunt Joanie, we knew this would work and we are just getting started!” Her words are my motivational mantra. No matter how many new partner organizations we take on, I will always feel “we are just getting started.”Originally our inspiration came from the women we wanted to help and in large part, it still does. What I didn’t foresee was how much motivation we would gain from the social workers we partner with and hearing about the difference we were making in their lives too. We are also greatly inspired by our donors’ support and the kind words they share with us.
In 2015 Distributing Dignity was able to expand our outreach by 600%. All of that was accomplished as a grassroots, all-volunteer organization that started in our home and now has grown into a national organization. It is an amazing feeling to have your hard work and your vision come to fruition.
Our hope is to be helping women in all fifty states. We are already in 10 and receiving requests from all over the US on a daily basis and we want to fill them all.