By Lisa M. Krieger San Jose Mercury News.
After a rape, victims often lose their innocence and perhaps their faith. Then they lose their clothing. Perhaps torn and bloody, defiled and loaded with DNA, the clothes are needed by authorities as evidence.
The Grateful Garment Project gives victims back an outfit -- and with it, some dignity.
"People were going home in disposable hospital gowns," said Lisa Blanchard, the project's founder and director. "It's humiliating. Horrific."
Her small 4-year-old organization, run out of a modest San Jose office, has donated nearly 20,000 items of clothing -- brand-new, fresh and clean, in sizes ranging from 3T to 3X -- to victims of sex crimes in 25 California counties.
But the group needs more. There are people and places it hasn't yet reached. And it's trying to provide more nonclothing items, such as toothbrushes, flip-flops, protein bars and tote bags to carry post-assault medications.
A donated DVD player, for instance, will help distract a child undergoing an hourslong medical exam, Blanchard said. Donated books, such as "Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets" or "Girls Like Us," can help with healing.
Blanchard also hopes to decorate the often-gritty offices of county Sexual Assault Response Teams, typically located in neglected corners of hospitals or sheriff's departments. The waiting room in San Gabriel in Los Angeles County, for example, has only spartan redwood benches for seating. Another room, made of cinder block, has only plastic lawn chairs.
The project also needs volunteers to count, fold and help distribute clothing, as well as perform other odd jobs.
A brand-new outfit can be purchased with a $50 donation. Twice that amount -- $100 -- can fill a backpack with personal care items, clothing and basic food for a child who has been rescued from prostitution or a woman saved from human trafficking.
These are modest steps towards easing such a profound assault, Blanchard and board president Barbara Otto acknowledge.
The prevalence of sexual assault will continue to create demand for their services. For instance, Santa Clara County conducts an average of 280 sexual assaults exams annually, offering its patients clothes through internal clothing drives or staff donations. Both men and women are assaulted. The most common age range is 12 to 24.
Grateful for the project's help, members of Sexual Assault Response Teams from around the state have written letters of appreciation.
Ann McCarty, of the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center, wrote that "providing them with a survivor kit -- which includes underwear, T-shirts, sweatpants, sweatshirts and shoes along with snacks and a teddy bear -- begins the recovery process and allows survivors to leave the hospital with their dignity intact."
"Asking for a clothing handout is difficult for anyone, in any circumstance, but imagine having to ask because you were sexually violated? The Grateful Garment Project is a very important resource for the ACFJC and for the clients we serve," according to a statement from the Alameda County Family Justice Center.
The project was conceived during a brief coffee break at a church retreat by Blanchard -- a widow and single mother of three children by age 27 -- and a complete stranger.
It was a chilly, rainy day, and Blanchard noticed the woman sitting on a sofa, wrapped in a green sleeping bag.
They happily chatted. And each asked the other: "If anything is possible through God, what would you do?"
Blanchard described her dream of attending college, getting a degree in psychology, becoming a therapist and someday gaining fame on a lecture circuit.
Then it was the stranger's turn. She asked, simply: "Do you know that when people get a medical exam after being sexually assaulted, they have to give up all their clothes?"
The pair agreed that a "clothing closet" was a great idea for a project. After the coffee break, they parted ways, agreeing to share contact information. Then the stranger vanished. Blanchard has since tried to learn her identity, but to no avail.
Blanchard's first client was San Jose's Valley Medical Center, as part of her graduation thesis assignment in 2011 while attending Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont.
It was so welcomed by VMC officials that within two months, four more facilities asked for help. By 2012, she was delivering clothing to Sexual Assault Response Teams in 12 counties. That number has since doubled, guided by a board of directors that includes Blanchard's son William Cotter, a former Air Force military police officer.
Until acquiring office space, the group operated out of Blanchard's home, with just a laptop and a cellphone.
"I had a living room full of panties," she joked.
She has since earned a master's degree from the University of San Francisco. Long unpaid, she now earns a small salary.
The project has taken project members to distant corners of the state, such as the steep and windy roads of remote Lassen County, in a teal minivan packed full with supplies. They also deliver clothing to tough urban hospitals, such as Oakland's Highland Hospital.
"I feel like a missionary in my own land," said Blanchard, 49.
The most commonly donated item is an adult T-shirt, thanks to Livermore's Greenlight Apparel, which manufactures high-quality performance T-shirts for athletic events and sometimes has misprints.
Underwear is in greatest demand. Also needed are yoga pants, sweat pants, sports bras, socks, hooded sweat shirts, flip-flops and slippers, blankets, and grooming items such as toothbrushes and shampoo.
The group is expanding its mission. To encourage teen victims to return for follow-up medical and counseling appointments, it provides gift cards to Jamba Juice, Starbucks and other venues popular with youths.
It also offers $50 gift cards to help low-income women buy appropriate clothing to wear to court if their cases go to trial.
"You can't show up for court in a T-shirt," Blanchard said. "Providing new clothing, including shoes and a small 'comfort' item, aids in the confidence and courage it takes to face their perpetrators once again in court."
As Super Bowl 50 approaches, the group is gearing up to pack 250 kits for the anticipated surge of numbers of women seeking help after assault.
"Our dream is to live in a world where there is not a need for The Grateful Garment Project," Blanchard said. "But until then, seven days a week, we're helping people heal."
FOR MORE INFORMATION To learn more about The Grateful Garment Project, go to www.gratefulgarment.org.