In the middle of July 2015, Dana Marlowe, a self-described “working suburban mom” in Maryland, posted to Facebook that she was planning to donate gently used bras and some unopened packages of sanitary pads and tampons to a local homeless shelter. She figured she would collect bras, pads, and tampons from friends and family for two weeks, make the donation, and that would be that.
Three and a half years later, she’s still doing it—now as the founder and executive director of a nonprofit organization called I Support the Girls (the double entendre is intentional). To date, I Support the Girls has collected 500,000 bras and 2.5 million menstrual hygiene products and distributed them worldwide to vetted shelters and organizations. The organization has about 50 chapters around the world and remote staff members in New York, Colorado, Israel, and Argentina.
“It’s just one of those crazy stories about a Facebook post that turned into a global NGO,” Marlowe says.
And this is just Marlowe’s side gig. She still works full time as founder and CEO of Accessibility Partners, an IT consulting firm that makes technology accessible for people with disabilities.
In between it all, we spoke with Marlowe about how I Support the Girls started and about the impact she has been able to make.
Q: Where did you get the inspiration for I Support the Girls?
A: A few years ago, I lost weight and needed new clothing. My husband very kindly said to me one morning, “I know you’re not hitting the mall to get a whole new wardrobe, but you need to get some new bras because your bras are not fitting at all.”
While I was in the bra store getting fitted, I asked the sales manager what I could do with my old bras. She said four words that set my wheels spinning and started this whole thing: “Homeless women need bras.”
I didn’t know that. I went home and realized that I had a drawer full of perfectly good condition, clean bras that I could donate. I found an article online about a local homeless shelter that had given away bras recently, so I called them up and said I had 16 good bras to donate if they still wanted them. They asked me how soon I could bring them over.
This was all new to me, so I asked if they needed anything else—because I don’t know what I don’t know. They said they needed menstrual hygiene products: maxi pads and tampons.
I figured I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know all this, so I posted to my Facebook page, and it exploded! The post got shared and re-shared, and each of the shares were getting 50 or 60 comments. It just took off like wildfire. Originally, I was going to collect items for two weeks, until the end of July. I ended up making the first donation just before Halloween 2015: 1,051 bras and about 7,100 menstrual hygiene products.
Q: Was there a turning point, when this went from a local collection to a larger operation?
A: The first turning point came after just two days. My Facebook feed had gotten ridiculous. I was sitting at my computer with a legal pad at night, trying to keep track of everybody who wanted to donate items or wanted more information and then trying to get back to them with a way to do it. I quickly realized this wasn’t effective or efficient.
So, I created a Facebook page, and instead of calling it “Dana’s Bra Project” I called it “Support the Girls” because I liked the double entendre. I had never created a Facebook page before, but I figured it would be better to push the information out there and bring everyone to one place, instead of trying to pull the information from all the individual pages that had shared the original post.
The next turning point came when a Washington Post reporter wrote about the collection and the October 2015 donation. Hundreds of people responded to the article: tweeting at me, texting me, emailing me, reaching out to the reporter to try to get in touch with me. That’s when I knew I was onto something.
Q: So, how did you get from “Support the Girls” the Facebook page to I Support the Girls the nonprofit?
A: After the article came out and things got really big, I realized I had a few choices: I could walk away, I could buckle down and try to figure this out on my own, or I could bring in the smartest people I knew and try to figure this out with them.
I chose the third option. I hired a moderator and brought in my friends and family who I highly admire in a lot of different fields: operations, business strategy, organizational development, nonprofit management, marketing, and public relations. We came up with the idea of creating an affiliate network or chapters—empowering people to collect items locally, in their communities, and donate locally, thereby empowering the women in need in their communities and keeping their products local.
The first person to do a collection drive under the I Support the Girls auspices was a woman who lives near me in Montgomery County, MD. She wound up collecting thousands of items over the course of the month and having a big party to thank everyone. Then I worked with a woman in Indiana—and this was still just volunteering. I Support the Girls didn’t even exist as an organization yet. But I thought, if you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it right from the beginning. The woman in Indiana said she wanted to collect 3,500 bras before she turned 35, which was in December 2016 (we were talking in January 2016). She collected 3,500 bras in 88 days. And that’s when I realized this could be done.
I asked my husband to create a website so people could get information, resources, and frequently asked questions. I Support the Girls became an official nonprofit organization in April 2016. Now we have around 50 affiliates around the U.S. and globally, and we have warehouses in Rockville, MD; Dallas, TX; Florida; Indiana; and the St. Louis area. We’re doing a lot of things that I didn’t consider three years ago, but that’s the beauty of growing anything.
Q: As I Support the Girls continues to grow, what keeps you going?
A: This is a way for me to regularly give back and make the world a little bit of a better place, especially for marginalized and impoverished women and girls. I’ve seen and heard firsthand from so many women that having a well-fitting bra lets them stand up straighter and maybe makes them go for that job interview, or just feel better about how they’re presenting themselves to the world because their first layer feels good. When I hear that, I feel like I did my job for that moment, and it keeps me going to want to do more and have a greater impact on the lives of so many more people who share similar stories.
You can donate bras and unopened packages of menstrual hygiene products via mail to I Support the Girls, Attn: Dana Marlowe, P.O. Box 2736, Wheaton, Maryland 20915, or by bringing the items to a location near you. Please also share your reactions to this story in the comments below!