Distributing Dignity
Helping homeless women with the most personal of needs
By Kate Morgan

In 2009, longtime philanthropists Joanie Balderstone and her wife, Rebecca McIntire, were outfitting homeless women in Camden with business attire.

“We’d been collecting gently used business clothing for these women to wear to interviews,” Balderstone says. “One of the people who was working with us went and made the delivery, and before she left a woman pulled her aside and said, ‘Listen, thank you so much for the suit, but I don’t have a decent bra to wear underneath it.’”

Balderstone and McIntire immediately reached out to shelters and day centers to ask what else the women there really needed. The answer came quickly: they needed bras and feminine hygiene products. Balderstone and McIntire were taken aback – not that such a need existed, but that it had never occurred to them.

“One woman was brave enough to speak up and say, ‘OK, but I really need a bra,’ and because of her we found out there are so many women in the same position,” Balderstone says. “Our contact at the shelter told us they get lots of donations of shampoo, toothpaste and deodorant, but they almost never get tampons. Now we have a lot of people say they never even thought about it. We tell them we honestly hadn’t thought about it either. For over a decade, we’ve been donating other toiletry items and never thinking we should be providing this one important thing.”

In response, the women planned a get-together at their Cherry Hill home in the spring of 2010. They called it “Mardi-Bra” and asked each guest to bring along a new bra or an unopened package of tampons or maxi-pads.

Since that first party, the organization has grown. “We officially launched Distributing Dignity on March 1, 2014,” McIntire says. “In the past year, it’s been a combination of factors helping us grow. We’ve had more of our own events, but the majority of it is other people having collections with groups of women. They collect from their friends or their employers or their book clubs. We’ve had groups of young women from local universities hosting collections.”


Distributing Dignity wraps all donations so the recipient feels like they are receiving a gift

Balderstone estimates that Distributing Dignity has given away more than 500 new bras and a huge number of feminine products. They receive a constant stream of donations, which they then distribute to their network of partner institutions spanning New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. Balderstone and McIntire have expanded the organization quickly, thanks in part to sponsorships from regional and national corporations, and the low overhead costs associated with running the nonprofit from their home.

“It’s almost comical how many pads and tampons are in our house,” McIntire laughs. “We started out storing them all in a guest-room closet, and that blossomed into the whole guest room, and now there are stacks in our living room, dining room and foyer. It’s like a tower of tampons in here, but it’s a great problem to have.”

The women have worked with local businesses and institutions like the Cherry Hill Public Library to establish drop-off sites for donations. The only requirements are that packages of pads and tampons are unopened and bras are new with tags.

“You start out just wanting to meet a specific physical need any way you can, but we feel this is about so much more than that,” McIntire says. “Sure, we could donate gently used bras, but by giving something new, we’re sending these women the message that they are valued, they have worth.”

To drive home that message, McIntire and Balderstone take things a step further whenever possible by packaging each bra in tissue paper with a ribbon and a card.

“For organizations like day facilities or crisis centers, we provide a cross-section of our inventory and let them distribute the bras as needed,” Balderstone says. “But the residential organizations – where women may live for two months or more – can provide us with a size list. We wrap each of those bras so it’s like receiving a gift. Someone said that at some point, once the organization gets to be a certain size, we’ll have to give up doing that. I told them that at no point will we ever be so big that we can’t hand-wrap a bra. It’s important that it be personal, that we see every woman who will be helped by this; every woman who is homeless, every woman fleeing domestic violence, every veteran who served her country and now can’t live on her own. Every single woman.”

Distributing Dignity accepts donations of bras in all sizes, colors, patterns and styles, which McIntire sees as a representation of their supporters.

“We’ve had women say to us, ‘Well why not? Why not give them something really pretty?’” McIntire says. “The donations we get in all different sizes and colors are such a beautiful reflection of the women who are out there helping us.”

Balderstone and McIntire also make an effort to provide a varietry of sizes and styles of feminine products to the facilities they support.

“It seems like such a small thing, but the choice is so empowering,” Balderstone says. “We take for granted that we can go out and buy whatever products we prefer, anytime. We’ve all had that instance where we’ve been out somewhere and been unprepared, but imagine feeling that way every month, or always having to settle for something that makes you uncomfortable, because it’s the only thing available.”

Though the organization does have some male supporters, Balderstone says the majority of Distributing Dignity’s allies are women.

“That’s empowering, too,” she says. “Far too often, women are encouraged to put each other down. People say that women can’t work together, but this organization is proof of what we can accomplish. I think a big part of it is that every single woman can relate. We think we have nothing in common with women who are homeless or living in shelters, but this is the one thing we are all going to need, regardless of our situation.”

Balderstone and McIntire assume that Distributing Dignity will ultimately become a national organization. After all, McIntire says, the mission “sort of sells itself.” No matter how far their work spreads, though, the women are deeply committed to helping women in South Jersey.

“The goal is to grow further,” McIntire says. “We plan to expand to have organizations we help in locations across the country, but we’ll always give in this area. This is where our commitment began, and this is where our heart is.”

May 2015
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