For people who have periods, menstrual products are invaluable every month. But the need for those products doesn’t stop when the ability to afford them does.
Constant access to pads, tampons and pantyliners is probably something a lot of us take for granted. Not Linda Willimer.
Willimer is the affiliate director of I Support the Girls Central/South New Jersey. The I Support the Girls nonprofit collects and distributes bras, underwear and menstrual products to people and facilities in need—prisons, hospitals, LGBTQ+ organizations, those experiencing homelessness, impoverishment or distress, as well as victims of domestic violence, victims of sex trafficking, refugees and those affected by natural disasters.
Purchasing those products often takes a backseat to other essentials for women in need, Willimer said, and that’s why she got involved with the organization.
“If you’re a mother and you’ve got children to feed, you’re going to go buy cereal and milk and bread and those basic staples before you’re going to buy yourself a pack of pads or tampons,” she said. “Those are the things that we are aiming to provide for them in their time of need.”
Menstrual products are even harder to access for women experiencing homelessness, though, said Willimer.
Willimer’s chapter covers New Jersey from Bridgewater down. She works with local nonprofits, like HomeFront and the Rescue Mission of Trenton. Willimer and her volunteers collect menstrual products—maxi pads, pantyliners, tampons, hygienic wipes—plus bras and underwear for the organizations to either distribute through their facilities or to homeless individuals in public.
And Willimer’s sources are vast. Most of the materials the chapter collects comes from donations. Some donate directly. Others purchase products from the organization’s Amazon wish list. Donors have hosted drives in the past. The organization also hosts fundraisers, like a trivia night hosted by drag queens, where attendees can donate money, products or both.
The organization also receives donations from companies like Liberte—the lingerie retailer recently boxed up 200 bras and 100 pairs of underwear for I Support the Girls. Soma Intimates also holds a used bra drive for the organization twice a year, which often nets hundreds of bras that Willimer and the volunteers pick up, wash and distribute.
“That’s a mammoth task,” she said.
Online, subscription-based Lola, which sells menstrual and reproductive care products, has donated pads, tampons and liners to the chapter. Bra retailer Thirdlove also donates all returns, so Willimer and her husband often drive down with an empty van to the company’s headquarters in Maryland and come back to their home in Pennington packed to the gills with undergarments.
Willimer has also started working with the New Jersey Association on Correction, collecting bras, underwear and other items for women coming out of correctional facilities.
“It really does go from my friend Mary packing up an extra package of tampons at the grocery store all the way up to companies who donate exclusively to I Support the Girls,” Willimer said.
Willimer first got involved with I Support the Girls as part of its North Jersey chapter not long after its founding. Willimer and her family moved to the United States 19 years ago from St. Albans, near London, for her husband’s job. Once here, she worked at the Breast Cancer Resource Center in Princeton as a volunteer and employee on and off for 10 years and was looking for something to do after she left.
The organization, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, was founded by Dana Marlowe in 2015. She lost weight and needed new bras, but wasn’t sure what to do with her old ones—they no longer fit, but she felt that throwing them out would be a waste. So she and her friends started collecting gently used undergarments and taking them to a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C.
“Underwear is one of the things homeless women never get,” Willimer said. “They might come across a coat or a sweater, but they seldom get underwear.”
The same goes for menstrual products. Shelter staff asked Marlowe about bringing some to the facility, and I Support the Girls was born.
It’s changed a lot over the last five years, Willimer said, especially within the last several months. The coronavirus pandemic has altered the way Willimer and her volunteers operate, though not necessarily in a bad way. They’ve received more Amazon purchases, for example, because it’s easier for donors to buy online and send products directly to Willimer, rather than going out to the store. She’s also fielded more requests for menstrual products, bras and underwear from local organizations that house food pantries.
And as need has increased, so has the amount of donations.
“I’m very lucky,” Willimer said. “It’s not the same for every director in other parts of the country. Some are really struggling to get stuff. But I have to say that the generosity of some of the local churches, the Girl Scouts, various organizations, we’ve been really lucky that we’ve not only had financial contributions, we’ve had actual donations of goods, and then we have a really good volunteer base, as well.”
Despite all of the donations—Willimer said they hit about half of last year’s intake in May alone—the organization is still in need. Maxi pads are at the top of the list.
“Particularly with a lot of these organizations that we work with, there are lots of women and girls who don’t use tampons, so they specifically ask for maxi pads,” Willimer said. “What we’re doing at the moment is, say I get a pack of 96 maxi pads. Instead of giving them that pack, we split them. At the moment, we’re repackaging everything into bags of 20. If you’re taking it back to your home or your bathroom or your bedside cabinet or wherever you keep them, having a big pack isn’t such a big deal. But if you’re on the street, or if you’re in temporary accommodation, having a pack of 96 maxi pads takes up a lot of room.”
And Willimer has done all of this while recovering from breast cancer.
She was diagnosed at an early stage in August of 2018 after months of trying to convince her doctors that something was not right.
“I have always been such an advocate of feeling your boobs, if you’ll pardon the expression, and also knowing your body,” she said. “I actually had two mammograms, two ultrasounds, and they couldn’t find anything. I said, ‘I know there’s something wrong.’”
Finally, a thermographic image revealed something deep in her left breast. An MRI confirmed it. She had a lumpectomy and underwent radiation treatment, but she couldn’t quite sit still.
“I have to keep busy,” she said. “I’m either a person who does absolutely nothing or I’m on the go. It was good for me to be on the go, and I was very lucky that I had people who came around and packed and boxed and labeled while I sat. Because of this, I’ve also started a breast cancer bra bank.”
Willimer had products that she no longer needed, and this is common, she said—once recovered, or after undergoing reconstructive surgery, patients no longer need items like mastectomy bras, prostheses, headwear and surgical bras.
Her experience also inspired her to start looking into ways to provide testing to women who may not otherwise have access.
“I’m a huge advocate for testing,” she said. “I’ve been talking to people about helping transient women get mammograms. They’re the ones who don’t, and they’re the ones who wait until the last minute when something’s wrong, and they’re the ones who don’t always survive. It’s all about early diagnosis.”
For those who know Willimer, it’s just another example of her passion for advocacy.
“My husband used to say I would stand on one soapbox, and now I stand on two.”