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The ‘accidental bra fairy’ has helped homeless women for years. Now, she’s helping women affected by the shutdown.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/12/2019 Cathy Free
Dana Marlowe at her Silver Spring home in 2017 with donated bras. (D. Lag Photography) © / Dana Marlowe at her Silver Spring home in 2017 with donated bras. (D. Lag Photography)

About two weeks into last month’s government shutdown, Dana Marlowe, a.k.a. “The Accidental Bra Fairy,” put out a Facebook post in which she offered to help female federal employees who had no money for bras or feminine hygiene products.

Within hours, nearly 100 messages poured in:

"My husband and I have to go to work and are not getting paid,” wrote a woman from Florida. “It’s getting stressful because my husband’s car broke down. We have three teenage girls, so of course we use a lot of feminine hygiene products. Can you help us?”

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“I had a baby and just stopped nursing before the shutdown happened,” wrote a woman in Virginia. “I’m in need of new bras since my size has changed, but I don’t have money to buy them since I haven’t been paid. I’m a size 38-C, and forever thankful if you can help.”

Marlowe was better equipped than most to offer her support: She has a basement filled with bras and sanitary products that she gives away free. And she’s at the ready with more products to give away now, as another shutdown is possible.

Since she began her “I Support the Girls” nonprofit in July 2015, the 42-year-old business executive and mother of two sons from Silver Spring, Md., said she has distributed more than 500,000 bras and 2.5 million personal hygiene products to women in need.

Underwire bras, push-up bras, sports bras, maternity bras and racerback bras arrive at her house by the boxload in every hue and pattern imaginable, including pastel pink and neon green and red polka dots, winged hearts and spotted leopard. Most of them are gently used.

Although Marlowe’s home has been perpetually filled with large piles of bras after starting her charity, she said, her cups runneth over since she got some media attention in October 2015.

Dana Marlowe poses for a portrait after a trip to the post office to pick up donated bras in 2017. (Micah Blay) © / Dana Marlowe poses for a portrait after a trip to the post office to pick up donated bras in 2017. (Micah Blay)

“Overnight, we became wildly successful,” she recalled. “People want to give back and do good, and this is an area that people don’t often think about. It’s almost like it’s taboo, even though more than half the population has had a period and the other half came from someone who had a period.”

What started as a local project to help give a few homeless women some intimate wear has turned into an organization with an army of volunteers collecting and distributing bras, tampons and pads in 50 U.S. cities and five other countries — Australia, Canada, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand.

Marlowe’s network includes more than 500 social services organizations nationwide, from domestic violence shelters and refugee agencies to women’s prisons. “I Support the Girls” has donated thousands of products to areas affected by natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas in 2017 and was followed weeks later by Hurricane Irma in Florida.

Marlowe has also persuaded several bra manufacturers and personal hygiene companies, including Soma,Third Love and Lola, to partner with her. Soma is running an in-store campaign through February, collecting gently used bras of all kinds from customers and sending them to Marlowe’s charity.

“The funny thing is that I didn’t plan this or anticipate this,” Marlowe said. “I didn’t have this grandiose dream when I went to college that I would have a mountain of bras in my living room.”

Volunteers help Marlowe deliver bras and hygiene products to D.C.-area shelters in 2016. (Vanessa Alvarez) © / Volunteers help Marlowe deliver bras and hygiene products to D.C.-area shelters in 2016. (Vanessa Alvarez)

It started when Marlowe, who runs an information technology company for people with disabilities, lost 35 pounds in 2015 and ended up with a problem that she didn’t mind having: None of her old clothes fit.

She bought some new shirts and pants, she said, but then one morning, her husband, Preston Blay, mentioned it might be a good idea to get some new bras.

That afternoon, she went to a Soma lingerie store near her home to buy several new bras. After the sales clerk rang up her purchases, Marlowe asked what she could do with 16 perfectly good bras that no longer fit.

“The clerk told me four simple words that completely changed my direction and my life,” Marlowe said. “She said, ‘Homeless women need bras.’ ”

It had never occurred to her.

Marlowe called a homeless shelter in Washington and was told that they would gladly accept all the clean, gently used bras she could find. “What else could you use?” Marlowe inquired. “Maxi pads and tampons,” the worker said. “Women here would really appreciate those.”

Next day, Marlowe dropped off 46 bras (30 were donated by one of her friends), along with several boxes of sanitary pads and tampons. From there, she decided to ask friends on Facebook to chip in, and within days, she was driving her minivan all over the D.C. metro area to pick up the items.

“It’s so much bigger than me, and so many people automatically get it,” she said. “I get asked all the time, ‘How can I help?’ ”

One bra at a time, Marlowe’s idea is making a big impact, often in unexpected ways.

Kisha Allure, a transgender woman who manages Casa Ruby, a respite care center for homeless LGBTQ youth in Washington, receives regular deliveries of bras from Marlowe.

Many of Casa Ruby’s young residents have been kicked out of their family homes, assaulted or sexually abused because they are transgender, she said.

“We deal all the time with bigotry and hate. A lot of the young women who come in here have been sleeping on the streets,” said Allure, 41.

She is able to hand out free bras to people who need them because of Marlowe’s deliveries.

"It makes a huge difference to their confidence and self esteem,” Allure said. “They can’t afford to pay $25 to $40 for a new bra while they are transitioning. For almost all, that was out of reach until Dana.”

Volunteers and employees at Thrive DC, a help agency for homeless people and low-income city residents, have all heard stories about women who had to wear the same threadbare and dirty bra for years, with little access to places where they could launder their undergarments and hang them to dry.

“Most struggle just to provide the basic necessities for themselves, and new, proper-fitting bras just aren’t a priority when you’re focused on getting housed, finding employment or finding your next meal,” said Daniel Meloy, development director at Thrive DC in Columbia Heights.

“Each time Dana visits to bring more bras, the excitement level among our female clients goes up,” Meloy added. “They know they’ll soon have something that makes them feel better on the outside and on the inside.”

Recently, that help has been extended to federal workers and their families who took a financial hit during the recent federal government shutdown. Marlowe has already helped about 100 women who work for federal agencies, she said, many of whom are single mothers who did not receive a paycheck for a month. Some were not able to collect back pay. And she has plenty of bras and sanitary products in stock in case the government shuts down again — in addition to keeping stock for others in need.

For most women, Marlowe said, having a new bra — or two — that fits as well as hygiene products helps them to approach life with more dignity.

“They tell me that for once, they aren’t embarrassed to go on a job interview, or to go to school, where they used to worry about getting their periods and not having money for products,” she said. “They stand up straighter, knowing they no longer have to choose between buying groceries or a new bra and a box of tampons.”

In almost any situation, she said, a new bra can signify a fresh start.

“A bra is one of many small luxuries that most women take for granted,” Marlowe said, “and if you don’t have these things, you think about them all the time. To take away that worry for as many women as possible is what keeps me going. It makes all of the long hours and hard work worthwhile.”

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