by Lindsay Conner
For some people, charity work happens around the holidays in the form of a good deed or volunteer experience. For two Midtown women, altruism has become a year-round way of life. Rachael Heger and Chelsea Marburger are using their talents to highlight the challenges faced by some local women and provide them with resources to help.
I SUPPORT THE GIRLS
Working from her home office in Meridian-Kessler, Rachael Heger contentedly sorts shopping bags of maxi pads, tampons, and bras. One week in November, she received 70,000 donated pads and tampons, plus 2,400 pounds of brand-new bras.
Supporting the local groups that help at-risk women has become a full-fledged passion of Heger’s, whose modest stipend doesn’t begin to compensate her for the countless hours she puts in every week spearheading I Support the Girls Indianapolis. With 43 locations worldwide, I Support the Girls is a 501(c)(3) organization with a mission to provide dignity for women by meeting basic needs that often go unmet: menstrual hygiene products and bras. Heger donates to local homeless shelters, transitional facilities, domestic violence networks, food pantries, and low-income high schools.
As a way to serve the 80 percent of IPS students in the free or reduced-price lunch program, Heger gave 5,000 bras to Indianapolis Public Schools for their BackPack Attack event this summer. She calls her favorite achievement a partnership formed in 2018 that ensures every woman who leaves an Indiana correctional facility departs with new bras. “Giving back is really important to people, especially Midwesterners,” she says. “And when you are feeling a little upset about things you see on the news . . . people just want to be able to help.”
Heger explains that the I Support the Girls model gives people a simple way to help women in their own backyard by hosting collection drives at their workplaces, churches, or neighborhood groups. “Collect for three weeks, and see what you can do,” she says. “If you bring me five bras and your neighbor brings me three, and the woman down the street brings me 10, I can turn those into a donation of 500 that will go to any of about 65 organizations around the state.” Though a few donations are shipped outside of Indiana to migrant farming communities and indigenous populations, the majority of donations stay in the city.
It isn’t just the sorting and cataloguing of bras that intrigues Heger (who, fittingly, used to work as a librarian). It’s the personal connection and the empowerment that comes from women helping other women, like Tonya (name changed for privacy), who was getting back on her feet after being homeless. “I hope I get to keep these for a while,” Tonya said of her new bras, just after being fitted. “What do you mean? These are yours now,” Heger replied. Tonya explained that she has epilepsy, and every time she has a seizure, emergency personnel come and cut off her bra. “That was a situation that I’d never thought about,” Heger said. “That’s just awful, and you didn’t even realize that is a barrier for some people. So I’ve been trying to find more of her size to provide for her.”
Heger has met other women who are wearing a completely wrong bra size, like a 34B instead of a 44DD. “And I think, how did you even keep that on your body?” she says. “I can’t even imagine–It would be so wildly uncomfortable.”
But when people have the right underwear, it’s a complete transformation. “They stand upright, they feel better, they have better posture, their clothes look better,” Heger says, “And they have some confidence to go out and then go for a job interview. So that’s a really big thing, just being able to provide dignity.”
With each donation, Heger hopes to solve a small problem in her own community. “To me the most important thing is to figure out what problem you can solve. I can’t solve poverty. I can’t solve domestic violence or alcoholism. But what I can ensure is that every woman who is in [a vulnerable] situation and has fled, and is not in some sort of shelter organization, doesn’t have to worry if they get their period. It’s a small thing, but it’s something that I’m actually able to solve, which feels really good.”
When donating to food banks this holiday season, Heger suggests picking up a few extra rolls of paper towels, toilet paper, and pads or tampons. “Go to food pantries and you’ll see organic food piled to the ceiling. You’ll see beans and quinoa and gluten-free everything. And then you look at a little shelf that says ‘take one,’ and there’s a box of pads, a roll of toilet paper, and some paper towels.”
Because people receiving WIC, EBT, or SNAP cannot use any of those funds for disposable paper products, the costs add up. “If you’re menstruating and then you have a couple of teenage daughters? That gets pretty prohibitive,” Heger explains. “There isn’t an organization in town that couldn’t use a thousand pads. They’re expensive, and they’re taxed. It’s such a high-need item and yet it’s not often donated.”
“Hello gorgeous!” Two simple words are written in black marker on a hot-pink envelope, with a heart dotting the exclamation point. Inside the envelope are more words of hope, affirmation, and courage. Mapleton-Fall Creek resident Chelsea Marburger started Project Purse Indianapolis in November 2015 as a way to empower women in vulnerable situations. Handwritten notes are placed inside new and gently used purses, stuffed with toiletries, beauty items, menstrual hygiene products, and other necessities.
Working in higher education for years, Marburger enjoyed a fair amount of vacation around the holidays. “I was online surfing for gift ideas and volunteer opportunities, and kept getting pinged by the same social media image regarding packing care packages for the homeless,” she says. Then an idea came to her. It was a way to bring women together for the good of the community—not just to buy or sell candles or makeup—but to collectively make a lasting impact on other women. She soon began hosting “Reverse Purse Parties™” in people’s homes, where attendees filled purses with supplies to be gifted to local women’s organizations.
“In our first year, I personally attended 78 in-home, private Reverse Purse Parties™,” Marburger says. “As much fun as it was, that is not a sustainable practice for me or our nonprofit organization. Because we have a location, we encourage people to come to us. Our new space at the Meadows Design Complex allows us the space to host people and is extremely accessible.”
Marburger, who also serves as executive director of the Meridian-Kessler Neighborhood Association, believes in the power of giving locally. As of November, Project Purse has donated just over 4,000 packed purses to local organizations and is on target to reach 5,000 by the end of 2018. In one massive event last April, the group collaborated with Old National Bank to execut a company-wide drive and collected over 1,000 purses.
Numbers aside, the personal connections and stories of empowerment are at the heart of Marburger’s mission. Last year, she met a woman who stayed at Sheltering Wings, a domestic violence shelter in Danville, Indiana. “At Sheltering Wings, they encourage their clients to set and reach their goals and reward them with ‘Beauty Bucks’ that can be spent in their boutique. Vicky [name changed for privacy] ‘purchased’ one of our bags and wanted to get involved. This woman had left a terrible situation with three daughters and was living in temporary housing and wanted to find a way to give back. It hit me really hard,” Marburger says. Today, Vicky and her daughters are nearing the end of their time at Coburn Place, a longer-term facility in Midtown, at 604 E. 38th St., the previous IPS School 66. “Vicky has a great job, her girls are adjusted and loving their new school, and she continues to attend every single event we have because of her passion for our mission.”
Project Purse collects donations of new and gently used purses year-round, supporting the efforts of partners at CHIP, The Julian Center, Dove House, and similar-minded organizations supporting homeless women, female veterans, and at-risk teenagers.
Email email@example.com to arrange a local drop off of new/used bras and individually sealed menstrual hygiene products.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org for info on donating to Project Purse.
Lindsay Conner is a freelance writer and editor who recently relocated to the Keystone-Monon neighborhood from Nashville, Tenn.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 print edition of the magazine.