Features & Columns
Grateful Garment Project
Melissa walked along a dark stretch of Lake Merritt in Oakland, feeling a little woozy. She'd been drinking at an '80s party hosted by a friend. She knew it was late. Normally she wouldn't walk alone. But she was only a few blocks from home. It was just a short distance.
About a block from her apartment, a car pulled up and a man yanked her inside before speeding away. Melissa, who asked that her name be changed for this story, watched her apartment building whiz by out of the corner of her eye.
"I had a million things going through my head," she says. "There was the fear I would never get back out of that car. And this is going to sound ridiculous, but to be honest, my number one prevailing thought—and I must have been a little bit crazy at the time—was that I had my dog at home, and there was no one who was going to come let him out."
The man stopped the car and raped Melissa, beating her in the face as she tried to fight back. About a half hour later, she thinks, he shoved her out of the car and peeled away. Shocked and dazed, Melissa's bloody fingers dialed a friend, who immediately picked her up and rushed her to the hospital.
The details of the hospital remain hazy, but she clearly remembers at least two things: They gave her two Power Bars to eat during the more than three-hour exam; and they took away her clothes before giving her new underwear, pants, socks, a long-sleeve pajama top and a hoodie sweatshirt.
When Melissa's friend dropped her off at her apartment building, she pulled the hood up and over her face, shielding herself, and walked the rest of the way. Her dog anxiously greeted her.
"I can't imagine leaving the hospital in any other state," Melissa says. "It would have been horrifying and embarrassing, and I think that if I had been in a position where I had to walk home with my bits hanging out of a hospital gown, that's the memory that would have stayed with me. And I didn't have to do that. It's because someone provided comfortable clothing for me."
That "someone" is San Jose resident Lisa Blanchard, who just one year before Melissa's attack, for a college class assignment, founded the nonprofit Grateful Garment Project (GGP). In less than three years, the organization has grown from collecting clothes for the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) facility at Santa Clara County Valley Medical Center, to equipping SART facilities in 20 California counties, including Alameda County, where Melissa was attacked.
Blanchard was in a mid-career change, becoming a psychologist when she started the assignment in March 2011. The goal was to design a project that helped a local community. Six months earlier, Blanchard had a chance conversation with a stranger who told her that some sexual assault victims left SART centers in nothing more than a hospital gown. Maybe, she thought, she could collect clothing to give to the facility, located not far from her condo.
"I literally went over to the SART facility, knocked on the door and said, 'Hi, I'm Lisa. I have this idea. What do you think? I'm not even sure if there's a need,'" Blanchard recalls. The mouth of the employee who opened the door fell open. "She said there absolutely is this huge need."
The California Emergency Management Agency (Cal-EMA) reported that in the 2010-2011 fiscal year—the most recent available data—nearly 30,000 people accessed rape crisis centers statewide. At least 375 sexual assaults defined as rape were reported to law enforcement agencies in Santa Clara County in 2012. This excludes the Sheriff's Office, which oversees Cupertino, Saratoga, Los Altos Hills and unincorporated San Jose, and did not have information available as of press time. The survivors—social workers stay away from the word "victim"—range in age from infants to senior citizens, and include both females and males.
Local social workers say the numbers are probably much higher, since sexual assaults remain one of the most underreported of all crimes due to the stigma, shame, and victim blaming that happens. Unlike Melissa's case, an estimated 75 to 80 percent of victims know their attackers, and there's sometimes pressure from family and friends to keep quiet. Males are even less likely to report assaults.
Another major issue is that SART centers often run on what Blanchard calls "duct tape and Band-Aid budgets." Counties are mandated by the state to either have a SART facility, or contract with a neighboring county that has one. In turn, the counties contract with local nonprofit agencies to run the centers. Despite the mandate, the state allots just $45,000 annually to pay for SART facilities, according to CALCASA, a statewide advocacy agency focused on the issue of sexual assault. That amounts to just $775 per county.
"It's really kind of staggering to think that all these organizations had little or no resources to help survivors," Blanchard says. "The nurses or advocates that support the survivors a lot of times bought stuff out of their own pockets."
Within weeks of knocking on the SART center door, Blanchard's clothing drive attracted the attention of directors at other SART facilities, who began imploring her to help them. By May 2011, GGP had 501c3 tax-exempt status and her new career path as a nonprofit executive director was launched. Blanchard's now earning a master's in nonprofit management from San Francisco State University.
"I'm not doing this to get rich, obviously," she says. "It's become my purpose and mission in life. It's written across my heart."
In addition to new clothing for men and women, as well as prepackaged food, GGP provides almost anything SART centers want, including books, toys, and DVDs for children, privacy screens, and even pieces of exam equipment when older gear breaks down.
Sue Barnes, director of the YWCA's Rape Crisis Center, calls GGP work "phenomenal."
"The clothing is huge, because very often the police have had to take them from the survivor because it is evidence. And it isn't just any old clothing," Barnes continues. "For children, we get nice, bright, happy colors and the kids get to pick out whatever they want."
Blanchard has acquired extensive knowledge about sexual assaults, law enforcement techniques and how to help survivors, but she shields herself from some of the details.
"I've learned along the way that I don't want to know everything, every sordid detail, because it hurts my heart and would keep me up at night," she says.
Requests regularly come from out-of-state SART centers for help, or at least information on how Blanchard started GGP and how it operates. She says the focus remains firmly on California for the moment, but she hopes to serve all 58 counties in the future.
"I hope she keeps growing and growing," says Melissa, who has since moved to Michigan to be near family. "I will—not to use the title—but I will be forever grateful.
"The sweatshirt, especially, it's a bit of a security blanket," she adds. "Not in a way that I would be debilitated without it, but in a way that I feel sort of comfortable and protected in it."
Blanchard, for her part, remains humble despite the obvious impact she has had on hundreds of lives.
"I don't feel like I've done this super amazing thing," she says. "All I did was show up."
For more info, go to gratfeulgarment.org. The organization can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.