Gresham Soroptimists collect bras to help survivors of sex trafficking

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Gresham Soroptimists Liz DelPlato and Kate Allister say the womens service organization is seeking someone to transport or cover the cost of shipping 400 pounds of bras to Free the Girls.

Gresham Soroptimists thought about fitting all the donations on a ping-pong table, but the table would have buckled.

Members of the global women’s organization gathered last week to box up 2,265 new and gently used bras donated by community members at Gresham businesses the past two months.

Once they have someone to transport the donations or collect enough shipping funds, Soroptimists will send the bras to Free the Girls, a nonprofit organization providing job opportunities to women rescued from sex trafficking in Third World countries (the organization’s warehouse is in Indiana).

“One of our missions is to support not only women and girls in our community, but women worldwide,” said Kate Allister, president of Soroptimists International of Gresham. “Even though these bras are going to another country, it brings awareness to sex trafficking here.”

According to statistics, 27 million people are held as sex slaves or slave labor around the world; 80 percent of them are women and girls.

U.S. Department of Justice-funded anti-trafficking task forces have identified more than 3,300 potential victims in this country, and as many as 300,000 children are at risk for sexual exploitation each year.

In countries such as Mozambique, girls are sold into prostitution as young as age 8 and haven’t had the opportunity to attend school.

After being rescued, the girls live in safe houses, where they learn life skills and start rebuilding their lives.

Free the Girls strives to help women who have been rescued from sex trafficking by helping them sell bras as they reclaim their lives and return to school while staying in the safe house.

There, bras are considered luxury items and second-hand clothing markets are a thriving entity. Some of the girls earn three to five times the minimum wage in their communities by selling bras.

In addition, there’s an indirect benefit of the women wearing the bras: The traffickers tend to leave them alone, and the generations after them are less likely to be trafficked.

“We’re helping women not necessarily escape from trafficking, but stay out of it,” Allister said. “It’s so easy for them to go back because it’s familiar, but if they get a job selling used clothes, they’re surrounded by other women. It empowers them. It’s helping them build a new life through a new career.”

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: GRESHAM SOROPTIMISTS - Gresham Soroptimists sorted and packed 2,265 bras last week in the basement of member and project chairwoman Liz DelPlato. The bras will go to the nonprofit organization Free the Girls.

A local activist

Four years ago at a conference on sex trafficking, it was through the Gresham Soroptimists that Jessica Richardson felt able to share her story of how she was lured into prostitution at age 17 in Portland.

She remembers thinking, “Oh my goodness, that’s me. That’s all me.” It was the first time Richardson realized she’d been a victim of sex trafficking and heard it wasn’t her fault.

The past four years have been intense, but they spurred Richardson to activism.

A wife, mother of six, business owner and artist, Richardson, 34, is a former Soroptimist who co-founded Freedom’s Breath, now known as One Dream Movement. She’s been out of prostitution for 13 years.

The nonprofit organization creates awareness about sex trafficking, providing aftercare for sex workers and survivors of domestic sex trafficking who want to leave the industry.

“My heart is very connected to the Gresham Soroptimists,” Richardson said. “They are my people, and I will always be incredibly grateful for their wisdom, kindness, generosity and camaraderie.”

Gresham Soroptimists have a goal of improving the lives of women and girls through programs leading to social and economic empowerment.

Its membership spans generations, including 20-somethings and retired professionals.

Along with Free the Girls, Gresham Soroptimists sponsor scholarships for young women and focus on three other service projects — the Teddy Bear Parade, GirlStrength (safety and self-defense workshops for middle school girls) and Soroptimist Against Violence Environments (SAVE), which aids local shelters with money and resources.

“It’s incredibly exciting for me to see how change can be effected in a smaller community outward,” Richardson said.

Later this month, Richardson and her family are relocating to Los Angeles with One Dream Movement to further develop an aftercare model that will help survivors of sex trafficking across the country.

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: FREE THE GIRLS - Bras are considered a luxury item in countries like Mozambique, where there are thriving second-hand clothing markets. Through Free the Girls, women who have escaped sex trafficking are able to build their own businesses selling bras.

Free the Girls

Founded in 2010 by Emmy-award winning producer Kimba Langas and nonprofit professional David Terpstra, Free the Girls has expanded to Kenya, Uganda and El Salvador this year.

Free the Girls was featured in a three-part series on CNN’s Freedom Project in February 2012 (followed by a documentary in 2013). That July, the organization shipped 32,000 bras to Mozambique. Now, 21 women sell 100-500 bras each month.

Inspired by Langas’ speech at a Soroptimist conference in Spokane last year, Gresham members decided to launch their own local project collecting bras.

“I remember back when I was young, it was either beige or white or maybe black if you were a little X-rated,” Allister said, adding that while sorting donations they saw every color imaginable. “We had more fun last week.”

Added project chairwoman Liz DelPlato, “I’m sure some of the members hadn’t seen bras with zebra stripes.”

Participating organizations in the Free the Girls bra collection included Silk Espresso, Umpqua Bank, DelPlato Chiropractic, Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center Cafeteria, Sports Care Physical Therapy, Planet Fitness and the Division, Powell and Stark Cascade Fitness locations.

Gresham Soroptimists plan to invite Langas to speak during next year’s Free the Girls project. “Her stories are graphic, heart-touching, eye-opening and compelling … all at the same time,” Allister said. “We expect that community members will be inspired in the same way our club members were in promoting this project.”

DelPlato Chiropractic continues to collect donations, along with two new sites, The Gresham Elks and The Gresham Outlook. Northwest Paper Box has provided boxes for shipping.

This fall, Soroptimists have preliminary plans to partner with East County high schools for the Free the Girls project, potentially holding competitions among classes or athletic teams. They also hope to team up with churches.

“We want to get the community even more involved and raise awareness,” DelPlato said. “So many women have an extra bra that may not fit them right lurking in the back of their lingerie drawers.”

To donate money for shipping, call Allister at 503-618-6981. To learn more, visit or

Fast facts

Free the Girls

• Women in the pilot program of Free the Girls earned up to five times the minimum wage.

• Second-hand clothing is a $1 billion a year industry.

• Women can include notes to survivors with their donation of bras.

• Selling bras provides a flexible schedule for women who want to return to school.

• Free the Girls has 58 bra drop-off locations in 22 states and Canada.

• Women from more than 38 different states and countries have donated more than 130,000 bras.

• Many supporters ask that donations of bras and/or cash be made to Free the Girls in lieu of gifts for birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions.

• Free the Girls accepts bras of all shapes, sizes and colors, including athletic bras, camisoles and nursing bras.

• If a survivor needs bras of her own, she is able to keep some of what the organization sends.

• Free the Girls also donates shirts and bras to survivors of sex trafficking in the U.S.

— Free the Girls

Sex trafficking in 2012

• 46,570 human trafficking victims were identified worldwide.

• An estimated 27 million people were in forced labor, bonded labor and forced prostitution around the world.

• There were 7,705 successful trafficking prosecutions and 4,746 convictions.

• The U.S. Department of Justice-funded anti-trafficking task forces have identified more than 3,300 potential victims nationwide.

• Task forces have trained more than 114,000 law enforcement officers and others in identifying the signs of human trafficking and its victims.

• As many as 300,000 children are at risk for sexual exploitation each year in the United States.

— One Dream Movement and U.S. Department

of Justice

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