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Homeless women need bras. This group is helping

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 3/28/2017 Ryan W. Miller
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Dana Marlowe's weight-loss journey led her to a very unexpected place: Helping homeless women and girls in desperate need of something many take for granted.

Bras.

After shedding 35 pounds, she went shopping for some new ones. When Marlowe was getting fitted, she asked the clerk whether it was possible to refurbish her old bras, the same way you can upgrade an old laptop. The sales representative laughed, but then told Marlowe something she never realized.

Homeless women need bras.

So Marlowe, a small-business owner, called a local homeless shelter in Washington, D.C. The shelter said it needed bras and menstrual products. Marlowe said she had never considered the reality of being homeless and not having access to a tampon or a clean bra. So she gathered 16 old bras of her own, went to Costco to pick up pads and tampons and posted on Facebook to see whether she could round up friends to donate with her.

So many friends said yes, she extended the timeline a few times. By the time she dropped off her first donation in October 2015 to Thrive DC, a local service provider for homeless and low-income people, the Maryland mom had more than 1,000 bras and 7,000 menstrual products. 

© Provided by USA Today "We were expecting 20 or 30 bras, but she came in with thousands," Alicia Horton, executive director of Thrive DC, said laughing. The bras were in good shape, too, Horton added. "It was incredible."

"I'm just a working mom in the D.C. area doing this," Marlowe said. "It was a supply and demand issue."

The overwhelming response prompted her to start a non-profit: Support the Girls, which has become a passion project with global reach.

Less than two years later, through a network of 46 affiliates that have given to more than 190 charities, Support the Girls has donated more than 95,000 bras and 525,000 feminine care products in the United States and around the world, Marlowe says.

Marlowe has experience running start-ups. She owns her own business — Accessibility Partners — that works to make technology more accessible for people with disabilities. So she took a business-minded approach to her project for homeless women and girls.

After The Washington Post ran a story last year about her efforts, Marlowe said she saw hundreds of emails flow in, all asking her similar questions: Where can I donate? Can I send my bras to you? I want to do this in my hometown, how do I start?

With the help of her husband, she built a website to streamline information for those who wanted to get involved. Soon, Support the Girls had local affiliates that collected donations and distributed them to local charities around the country — and then the world. The group has affiliates in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Pakistan and Thailand.

Marlowe said she has heard of homeless women and girls using paper towels, socks, the inside of mattresses, even duct tape, if they can't afford a tampon or pad. Other girls skip school during their periods if they don't have the right products, Marlowe said.

"If you don’t have access to proper menstrual hygiene products, then you’re missing out on math class," she added. She also explained that some girls steal these products, which can lead to criminal records that hurt their ability to get a job after school.

"You can’t turn your period off whether you live in a mansion or you're living on the streets sleeping in a tent city," Marlowe said. "The funny thing about biology: a period is a period, period."

Marlowe handles collection and distribution in her own home for many of the group's D.C. partners. Just last week, she had the Salvation Army at her house picking up thousands of bras, pads and tampons.

Thrive DC now has an inventory of at least 300 to 400 bras on hand at all times. Women can come in every Monday to request any size they need. Without these donations, Horton said she could not cover the cost of these products.

A decent bra could run a women around $10 to $30 from a store like Target, while a box of 20 to 30 tampons may be $10 to $11, Horton said. "If you have no income or no home, that’s a lot of money monthly," she added. She said that most women are shocked when they come in to find that Thrive DC has bras — and has them in their size.

"The ability to have a bra that fits you, that provides you with support so that your clothes lay right, so that you can stand up a little straighter and more dignified, so that maybe you can feel better about yourselves ... that’s a powerful feeling from a small piece of cloth," Marlowe said.

Follow Ryan Miller on Twitter @MILLERdfillmore

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