The Gift of Lift broadens reach, forming new partnerships

As distribution of donated bras continues, nonprofit assists transgender community

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter

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Donate a bra, change a life.

The Gift of Lift premise is simple: Donate your new and gently used bras, and The Gift of Lift will get them into the hands of women who need them most. Some are shipped to nonprofit organizations across the United States. Others are taken on medical missions to foreign countries. And a portion of them are distributed locally, given to organizations and schools that serve women and girls who may not be able to afford brassieres.

“Gift of Lift has made a lot of impact,” said Michelle Bart, president and co-founder of National Women’s Coalition Against Violence and Exploitation.

Since its inception in late 2011, The Gift of Lift has collected about 15,000 bras, Bart said. In the two and a half years since her organization took over the program, more than 12,000 bras have been collected and distributed to women in need.

“It’s a really positive experience,” said Robin Helm, Gift of Lift coordinator. “Bras are intimate. When you share an intimate garment with another woman, it brings your hearts closer.”

Nonprofit group

The Gift of Lift effort was launched by Dr. Allen Gabriel, a Vancouver plastic surgeon, who hoped to collect 500 bras to take with him on a trip to Haiti. The community responded in a big way, donating more than 2,000 bras in a few months.

After Gabriel’s trip, his medical office kept the campaign going, distributing bras to local nonprofit organizations and sending them with providers on humanitarian trips. But, slowly, enthusiasm fizzled.

New life was breathed into the campaign after breast cancer surgeries left Helm with a drawer full of bras she could no longer wear. She shared her hopes of launching a bra donation drive with Gabriel. Gabriel told her about The Gift of Lift. And together they connected with Bart, with hopes of the nonprofit NWCAVE leading the revitalization efforts.

Bart planned for a year-long campaign, but the response was so overwhelming, The Gift of Lift quickly became an official program of the nonprofit.

“It took on a life of its own,” Bart said.

Since taking over in October 2014, Bart and Helm have broadened the reach of The Gift of Lift.

They partnered with Free the Girls, a Colorado-based nonprofit that provides job opportunities to women rescued from sex trafficking, and now supply the organization with regular shipments of bras.

Gift of Lift efforts also recently reached local high schools through the resource centers, which help homeless and low-income students. Helm fills her car — dubbed the “Bra Mobile” — and regularly delivers fresh supplies of bras to the high schools. The group is only set up in a few high schools now, but Helm hopes to get bins in all of the local high schools by this fall.

The Gift of Lift also recently turned unexpected donations into another charitable effort.

Over the years, organizers have found breast prostheses in collection bins. But since health plans cover the costs of the devices for breast cancer survivors, Gift of Lift organizers had trouble finding a group to take them.

But at last year’s Pride Festival, it clicked, Helm said. Health plans don’t typically cover the devices for people who are transgender, she said. So, they reached out to programs assisting that population and, just this month, donated the devices to Janus Youth Programs, Kaiser Permanente and Legacy Health.

“It’s just a great use of our resources,” Helm said.

Budget increases

As the program has grown, so too have its costs. Last year, the program had a $6,000 budget. The biggest expense is shipping; it costs about $1 to ship three bras, Helm said.

The Gift of Lift received a $5,000 grant from Macy’s, but that funding has since run out. Local businesses have also held fundraisers benefitting the program, and a local chiropractic office — Tristar Family Chiropractic in Hazel Dell — just became the first business to sponsor a shipment, paying to send hundreds of bras to Free the Girls.

Organizers recently applied for a few grants, and they’re always looking for sponsors and business partners, Bart said. In addition to financial sponsors, the program is regularly adding collection sites. Currently, 16 Clark County and two Oregon businesses have collections bins for bras.

For a list of collection sites, visit www.giftoflift.org.