When Dana Marlowe decided to get serious about exercising last year, she never expected that her new healthy habits would lead to a mountain of bras in her basement.
But that’s what happened: A pile of bras from A to DDD, in every imaginable color and pattern. Nursing bras. Training bras. Strapless bras. Cotton bras and silky bras and lacy bras, stacked more than three feet high.
Marlowe started collecting bras for homeless women because she herself needed new ones. During her newfound exercise kick, she ran six 5Ks and lost 35 pounds — so much weight that her old bras no longer fit.
“It would be a waste to throw them out,” she said. “I’m not about to string them up and put tea lights in them and Pinterest this.”
She mentioned to a friend that she might donate her old bras, and the friend offered to chip in her old bras as well.
Marlowe said that once she started talking about her donation drive, it grew and grew. Tenleytown yoga studio Lil Omm offered to serve as a drop-off spot for donations, and the studio gave anyone who contributed products a free yoga class. Marlowe created a Facebook page with the playful title “Support the Girls,” and friends as far away as Israel and France mailed bras to her.
On Thursday, Marlowe dropped off 1,051 bras — along with about 7,100 tampons and pads — for homeless women at Thrive DC in Columbia Heights.
She had eager bra takers at Thrive DC before she even finished bringing all the bags and boxes in from her car.
“When can we get one?” LaShaurn Leaks, 54, asked as she saw Marlowe toting in a bin of colorful bras. Leaks pulled down her top to reveal the edge of a red bra underneath. “Look what I’ve got on. It slides off and everything.”
In the pile of more than 1,000 bras, surely there was one in Leaks’s size.
Maxine Abayomicole, 65, called out to Marlowe, “Do you have 42D? I need a bra pronto.”
Marlowe assured Abayomicole that she had bras in her size, and plenty. “You want cheetah print? We have so many bras going on here.”
Abayomicole said she visits Thrive DC — a drop-in center that provides meals, showers, counseling, employment training, computer access and more — despite the fact that she has an apartment of her own.
A retired art teacher in D.C. public schools, she said she has seen her rent in Columbia Heights increase from about $500 a month to $900. She can afford little else other than rent payments, so she goes to Thrive DC for food. And she cannot come up with money for a bra, when the most popular bras even at low-cost stores such as Target cost $20 to $50 each.
As she speaks about the changes she has seen in her neighborhood, she tugs at her bra strap every few moments. “A woman needs a bra every day,” she says. But the one she is wearing is too small.
The mood was festive as Marlowe and two friends, Hillary Berman and Erika Dickstein, twirled Costco boxes of 90 sanitary napkins and tossed satiny purple bras in the air. Marlowe jokingly put a large blue paisley bra on over her clothes to pose for a photo, and gushed, “Oo, that’s pretty” over a dainty blush-colored bra with black lace.
“Oh, here’s one with a little jewel!” Marlowe said. Greg Rockwell, the volunteer coordinator at Thrive DC, said of a blue gingham bra, “It’s a Dorothy.”
“Some of them are getting some fabulous bras. Nicer than what I’m wearing right now,” Dickstein said, pointing out Soma and Calvin Klein tags.
The staff at Thrive DC said the enormous pile of bras and feminine hygiene products would go very quickly.
The drop-in center serves at least 50 women a day, and Nicole Price, who runs the nonprofit’s program for women returning from incarceration, said that about six to nine times a week, a woman confides that she is in need of a bra.
Going without a bra can be painful as well as embarrassing, and Thrive DC’s staff knows that providing such an important garment makes their clients feel much better about themselves. But they rarely get bras among their clothing donations. Especially not the gently used nursing bras that many of Marlowe’s friends donated.
“That’s not the picture they get when they think of a homeless individual,” Price said. “They think of the guy on the corner. They don’t think about the women who are pregnant, who are giving birth.”
Tampons and pads, also, can be too expensive for homeless women — estimates have put the cost of menstrual products at $120 a year, on average. “A lot of people are uncomfortable talking about it, but it’s a health issue,” said Daniel Meloy, director of development at Thrive DC. The organization hands out sanitary products so women can keep clean and can change their tampon often enough to prevent life-threatening toxic shock syndrome.
Marlowe began her drive in July. For months, she found herself taking long lunch breaks from her job, where she runs the technology consulting firm that she founded, in order to drive around the Washington region picking up bras from strangers’ homes. Berman and Dickstein collected hundreds at their synagogue, Congregation Beth El in Bethesda.
Even Marlowe’s 3- and 7-year-old sons started coming home with bras and sanitary napkins donated by their classmates’ mothers in their backpacks.
“I think I’ve kind of tapped out all the boobs in my social network,” Marlowe said, but she’s still getting Facebook messages from people who want to donate and finding the bright yellow bin in front of her house magically refilled again and again. She said her husband is glad to have the basement back, but she’ll probably drop off more donations around Christmas.
The need to supply basic necessities for homeless people is personal for Marlowe. One of her immediate family members has been homeless on and off for a decade, she said. When she learns her relative is again without a place to live, she rushes to the post office to mail toiletries and high-protein granola bars, plus something her relative especially requests: a copy of the Economist.
As she filled her basement with hygiene products and joked about wildly patterned bras with the homeless women in Columbia Heights, that relative, too, was on her mind.
“I understand that there’s basic needs that have to be met on a daily basis in order to feel good about yourself,” she said. “I get it first-hand.”
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