No matter how busy you are, every now and then you meet a person who makes you feel like you should be doing more. Dana Marlowe is just that person. A professional, a devoted mother and the advocate for Support the girls, which is an organization that addresses the natural needs of women through advocacy, education, and service.
About a year ago, I visited my local Soma store for some new bras. If you don’t know Soma, it’s a fun store with lots of bra styles and great customer service. I wanted to treat myself. It was an exciting shopping trip: I’d lost weight and had to get resized for new bras. While super eager to see the results of the measuring tape, I was also preparing to deal with separation anxiety from the bras that had been my bosom buddies for the past years. In my head, I didn’t feel right throwing them out, but I drew a blank on what to do beyond throwing them in the back of the closet. Armed with the pretty bras of my future, but wistful with those of my past, I asked the sales associate Deneen what to do with my bras that no longer fit. She told me about 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. Bras are expensive and rarely donated. And I had a bunch to give. All the puzzle pieces fit into place. It was a light bulb moment. Ding! 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. I quickly learned about the incredible need for menstrual products for the population of women/girls who are homeless and low income and started a Facebook page and collecting from friends.
I’ve always been a human rights advocate. I have a background in sign language interpreting and working with people who are Deaf and Deaf/Blind. I always knew that leveling the playing field for people with disabilities was the right thing to do, and one of the best levelers was technology. After graduating, and working in a few varied places, I partnered with two other individuals to create Accessibility Partners. We’re a firm that helps companies make their technology more accessible and usable by people with disabilities, and all of us are huge advocates for the cause. We hire people with disabilities to further that mission, and bring the conversation all over the world by working with clients in the public and private sector.
Truly, Support the Girls is another voice in the same conversation. People with disabilities, as well as homeless women (and there’s some overlap) are often disregarded and ignored. I wanted to find a way to give back, sure, but also make their needs very apparent in a world where they are underrepresented.
One of the missions of Support the Girls is to empower women. Having donations of bras and feminine hygiene products, collected by both women and men, can truly have an impact in connecting people in a very intimate way. Regardless of where people come from or where they are going, Support the Girls hopes for a connection to grow that spans time, geography, and socioeconomic status.
The Support the Girls campaign, within its parent organization For the Girls, Inc., a 501(c)3, is a national clearinghouse that provides guidelines, resources, and support to individuals and organizations to assist in collecting bras and menstrual hygiene products to donate to homeless shelters for women in need. Additionally, through its national platform and infrastructure, Support the Girls leverages its network of 20+ affiliates and partners to raise awareness of the need for these important feminine issues.
One of the biggest challenges was that we had to deal with a taboo factor. Many people get grossed out when topics of menstruation and homeless are brought up. We also had to deal with the fact that while bras are silly and sexy, they are a real need for health and self-esteem needs. It was difficult sometimes to be taken seriously when women’s rights are often not treated with the respect they deserve.
But we have growing pains too—these are good problems! Support the Girls is blessed with 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. My post office has never seen one person get so many packages at once, so they’re a little overwhelmed. I’d like these growing problems to stop eventually, because that means our mission has been accomplished.
Now we are at a point, I need to find some serious foundations and funders in order to grow to the next level and deliver more products and services. We have had some major federal agencies and private sector corporations step up and host collection drives which has been incredible. I’d like to see more corporations get on board in some capacity.
We have a dedicated team of social media volunteers who post the results of their drives and efforts online. This helps get people engaged in the conversation on a way that’s comfortable for them. But we also take pictures at our events that show a face of homeless women, and it’s often one that people don’t assume. We stand out in the crowd by showing that homelessness is real and is happening in our neighborhood. It’s quite the awareness bomb.
In person, we have drives at various places. We’ve collected at yoga studios, corporate offices, federal government agencies, road races, and even television studios. Something about seeing your bra leave your top drawer and going to a woman in need makes the mission of Support the Girls very real.
We are doing everything in our power to fight that stigma! This is a real health issue, not something gross that should be ignored, but unfortunately even in countries as progressive as the United States, It’s taboo and sexualized, which is ridiculous, if you don’t mind me saying. There’s still an association that this is an issue that should be kept quiet and doesn’t exist. Women shouldn’t face this. I get mad when I read articles saying that tampons have a luxury tax on them. I’m sure all women would agree there’s nothing luxurious about menstruation.
Still though, supporters need to know that homeless women are really no different than other women. They still get their cycle, but it’s even worse to have it in an unsafe and unsanitary place. Providing products like tampons and maxi pads keeps women more comfortable, yes, but also cleaner and healthier. It can save on resources as 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.Support the Girls has been spreading knowledge and awareness on a relatable, and not an ‘in your face’ type of message. We want to educate. Also, there is sometimes an assumption that women don’t want your old bras. I’ve had women think twice before they gave, worried about the condition or the pattern. Obviously we weren’t collecting rags, but there’s still some women who felt weird donating bras for someone else to wear. It’s really no different than any other item of clothing.
We keep careful record keeping and we have collected and donated over 20,000 bras, 30,000 maxipads, 23,000 tampons and thousands of toiletries as well to over 50 US shelters. Our affiliates in other countries as well have donated considerable amount of items in Australia, Canada, and Costa Rica.
Motivational mantra: “An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but will never break."
My biggest inspirations are from various times throughout history, but they include: Harriet Tubman, Madeline Albright and J.K. Rowling. All powerful women who looked injustice and unfairness in the face, and made their mission their own.
In one year, going from an accidental activist to now having Support the Girls chapters in Indianapolis, Phoenix, Cleveland, Knoxville, Chicago, South Florida, Milwaukee, Washington DC, and so many more locations collecting and delivering products for women and girls in need is pretty tremendous. Helping break down barriers around menstrual equity and squash taboos has also been incredible.
I hope for a few things: the first is that of course, organizations like Support the Girls will cease to exist because every homeless and low income woman in need will have enough bras and hygiene products for the rest of their lives. That’s a dream.
In reality, I’d like this conversation to take a national stage. I’d love to see the tampon tax overall repealed globally, and have this not be an uncomfortable conversation. It should be treated with respect and dignity. I would also like people’s perceptions of homeless to change. A homeless woman encompasses all demographics, and there’s no ‘universal homeless woman’. Greater empathy but also a commitment to prevention of homeless would be my hope. Since its inception in July 2015, Support the Girls has the larger goal of enabling and empowering women to step forward with confidence -- whether it's stepping forward to pursue a dream or to simply having the courage to say what matters most to them and to know they are valued, supported, and literally connected to others and to a larger community of caring.