As economy sags, man finds way to support women in need

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Julia Sledge runs a nonprofit program in San Diego that helps former women inmates re-enter society. Among the basic items that many of these women need when leaving prison or jail is underwear.

So, when Sledge ran across Ozkr “Oz” du Soleil’s Internet offer to donate bras to low-income women in need, she quickly responded.

Two weeks later, a shipment of 50 bras arrived, which Sledge, founder of St. Taylor’s Wrap-Around, will distribute to women who are on parole and unemployed. Good-quality bras, which costs between $20-$50, can be expensive for low-income or out-of-work women.

”[Not having] a change of underwear because you can’t afford it” is a reality for many of her clients, Sledge says, adding that she speaks from similar experience. “I’m heavy-chested and remember once, years ago, being so broke that I had to ask someone to help me buy a bra that would fit me.”

After du Soleil was laid off in July 2008 from his job at a financial service company, it was stories like Sledge’s, and the women she serves, that led du Soleil to begin collecting women’s bras – for a good cause. He called the initiative Support1000 – a reference to the number of bras he initially hoped to gather for women in need.

The jokes, looks of confusion and outright suspicion no longer bother du Soleil when he tells people about his collection of women’s bras.

“Questions about whether I’m strange do come up initially,” he says. “I am careful. I joke up to a certain point. But after a while there is a limit.”

Du Soleil keeps the jokes to a minimum because he is serious about his quest to collect and distribute quality brassieres to women and girls in need.

Since his story appeared in a Chicago newspaper, the donated bras have poured in. One week brought him a box of 80 bras from a New Hampshire company, most of them 36C s. When du Soleil gently explained to the company that he needed some D and G cups, along with other “odd sizes,” the company happily sent them – no questions asked.

Another intimate apparel company sent du Soleil 2,000 bras, half of the nearly 4,000 bras he has received so far, and almost the total of the 1,752 bras he has distributed in various parts of the country, including to organizations that serve African-American women in Atlanta and Pittsburgh.

“I don’t know how or why, but I was glad to get them,” he says.

So are the bras’ recipients, who include Deborah Slowe, founder and executive director of the Imagine Me Foundation in Markham, Ill., a Chicago suburb. Imagine Me caters to African-American girls.

Slowe spotted duSoleil’s ad on Craigslist, which mentioned his bra donation program. She contacted him to see whether he could donate bras to older girls in her program.

Most of the girls are from low-income or single-parent households, and suffer issues of self-esteem and self-worth, says Slowe. Many of the girls live in public housing and can’t afford basic toiletries such as toothpaste and deodorant. Having more than one or two bras is considered a luxury.

Dr. Linda Powell Pruitt, an educator, author and clinical psychotherapist believes that du Soleil’s program is important for several reasons.

“My experience with women and body image has demonstrated that feeling confident and feeling empowered can be related to feeling attractive and well-cared for,” Powell says. “They go together, and when we take appropriate steps to help women feel good about themselves, they can feel more powerful.”

Du Soleil’s bra crusade was launched by happenstance – after a former girlfriend discovered a discarded bag of bras in his apartment. They were leftovers from an online art project he created, he says. His then-girlfriend, an educator, said she knew some girls who could use the garments.

Their stories of having only one bra for school, play, church and other activities pushed du Soleil, a Navy veteran, into action.

From his one-bedroom apartment in Chicago, du Soleil collects, sorts and distributes hundreds of bras each week.

“They aren’t seconds or have defects,” he says. “I get a sense of the need and pack a range based on requests.”

Du Soleil, 45, works with nonprofit organizations for women and social workers to distribute the garments, rather than directly providing the garments to individuals.

He estimates spending about 10-15 hours a week on the bras, which includes packing and mailing. Sometimes friends help him with the sorting and packing, and a friend is helping to organize a database to track inventory and manage e-mails.

Other than $750 in funds to help create a nonprofit status for the bra program, du Soleil says he has received no monetary funds to ship the bras, and only has been reimbursed once for shipping. He hopes that his Support1000bras’ pending nonprofit status will enable him to raise funds for the program’s administrative costs.

Yet, it is hard to put a price on the emotional benefits du Soleil’s work brings him.

“I’ve felt so blessed” since starting the outreach, he says. “I had to drop all the false modesty I had. I had to step up and own this.”

People like Julia Sledge are grateful for that.

“I just think what he’s doing is so cool,” she says.