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Sexual assault survivors are often asked to undergo a forensic exam within 72 hours following the assault. Often referred to as a rape kit, it's the best chance of collecting evidence that can be used to track down and prosecute the perpetrator.
Except, the exam is a big ask. It takes several hours and includes a very thorough examination and collection process for evidence. The survivor’s clothes are often taken as evidence, with the survivor’s permission.
Twelve years ago, Lisa Blanchard was in school to become a psychologist at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif., when she decided to spend a weekend at a woman’s retreat —“’Anything’s Possible’ was the theme,’’ she recalls, and she met a stranger who, during an exercise, talked about what the rape kit process was like.
“I was horrified to learn that the victims were being sent home in paper gowns,” says Blanchard. The thought came back to her later when she was thinking up an idea for an undergraduate project. What if she helped create kits for these victims that provided them comfort after such a traumatic event?
The Grateful Garment Project was born. The idea: collect clothing and other comfort items and get them into the hands of survivors who underwent a rape kit. “It went viral overnight,” says Blanchard. “I had no idea the vein of the idea I had hit.”
Now, more than a decade later, Blanchard is working full-time as the nonprofit’s executive director. In coordination with 106 organizations throughout California, The Grateful Garment Project distributes clothing and Dignity Kits to survivors of assault after the rape kit. She estimates they help upwards of 50 survivors every day throughout the state, many of whom are teenagers and children, as well as domestic violence survivors. Up to 45 percent of women who are victims of domestic violence by an abuser will also be sexually abused by that partner.
Creating a Template to Help
Blanchard says she realized that many women wanted to get involved with a nonprofit, but wanted something they could do in a day, say with a club or women’s group. She created a template for something she named Dignity Kits that groups could assemble and give to Blanchard to distribute, and the project took off.
The template starts with a two-gallon bag or a box and asks volunteers to fill it with items like cozy socks, a sleep mask, tea bags or hot cocoa mix, a hairbrush, lotion—items survivors might find comfort in after trauma. There’s even a template for a youth Dignity Kit that includes a teddy bear, a fact that’s heartbreaking at its core.
“We want [survivors] to stay supported and have something soft, warm and clean,” she says.
Once collected, Blanchard distributes those kits to her partner organizations who make sure they go to survivors of assault after their exams, along with new clothing that Grateful Garment also collects.
A Well-Known Survivor Says Thanks
Chanel Miller, author of Know My Name and the victim of a widely publicized sexual assault, called out The Grateful Garment Project in her New York Times best-selling memoir. She recalled that her grandmother had donated to the organization when she was a child, and after Miller’s assault and subsequent rape kit, saw the Grateful Garments tag on the clothing she was given.
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“Had this organization not existed, I would have left the hospital wearing nothing but a flimsy gown and boots,” she writes in the first chapter. “Grandma Ann wrapped herself around me, told me I was ready.”
More Help Needed
Blanchard says not a week goes by that she doesn’t receive an inquiry to recreate the Grateful Garment Project in another state. “What prevents it is people to do it,” says Blanchard, 55 and a mom of three and grandmother of four. She has two full-time employees and a bevy of volunteers, including her kids, but it isn’t quite enough to go nationwide. Not yet at least.
“Everywhere and anywhere Grateful Garment is needed is where I want to be able to answer the call.”
To learn more, visit GratefulGarment.org.
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