Grateful for New Journey Helping Victims


A chance conversation with a complete stranger and a college assignment are propelling Lisa Blanchard on an unexpected trajectory as the leader of a fast growing all-volunteer organization that extends comfort and aid to sexual assault victims across the State of California.

Thanks to The Grateful Garment Project, started by Blanchard in March 2011 as an undergraduate student, sexual assault victims who must give up clothing as police evidence can go home fully clothed. In the past some victims left examinations with nothing more than a paper hospital gown.

“I had no idea when I started my simple class project that I was hitting a vein of need that was so immense, that basically it’s consumed my life for the past year,” said Blanchard, a San Jose resident and University of San Francisco graduate student.

The Grateful Garment Project has grown into a full-blown nonprofit with a board of directors, numerous volunteers, and Blanchard as its unpaid executive director.

To help continue its mission of aiding victims, the group’s volunteers are hosting a “Party for Panties” fundraiser at 6 p.m., on Saturday, July 21, at the Willow Den, 803 Lincoln Ave., San Jose. The event features free food, dancing and door prizes.

Besides clothing, The Grateful Garment Project provides toiletries, snacks, and other items for victims who undergo examinations at Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) facilities in 15 counties.

Exams can last anywhere from three and a half to 10 hours, depending on whether victims need medical treatment. Victims include both males and females, and range in age from infants to senior citizens, with the most common age range being 12 to 24 years.

The group also secures implements and other tools used by SART employees during the examination process.

Conversation With a Stranger

Blanchard says even she is amazed at how her life took such an unexpected turn from a path toward becoming a psychologist to a new path toward nonprofit executive director, after meeting the stranger who introduced her to the idea of helping sexual assault victims.

One day in 2010 Blanchard struck up a conversation with a woman who told her about SART facilities, and how sometimes victims—already traumatized by assault—suffer the indignity of being sent home in a paper hospital gown after their clothes are kept as police evidence.

“I remember after she told me this story feeling absolutely horrified. Instantly I had this full body experience of absolutely needing to do something to make things different,” Blanchard said.

She offered to partner with the woman to take action, but the two didn’t exchange contact information, and Blanchard never saw the woman again. The conversation lasted all of 15 minutes.

Class Project to Nonprofit in Three Months

Six months later Blanchard found herself required to create a class project that helped the community in some way as a student at Notre Dame de Namur University. Acting on her pledge to help the stranger, she reached out to the SART facility at Valley Medical Center in San Jose near her home.

“I literally went over to the SART facility, knocked on the door and said, ‘Hi, I’m Lisa, I have this idea, what do you think? I’m not even sure if there’s a need,’” Blanchard recounted. The employee’s mouth fell open. “She said there absolutely is this huge need, and that’s how I started working with SART facilities.”

The project kicked off in March 2011, and went on to exceed all of her goals for collecting clothing and other items for the facility. As a result of the success, she was asked to be a guest lecturer at Stanford Medical School to share her experience. While there, she was introduced to the manager of the Santa Cruz County SART facility, who implored her for help.

“I looked at her and I thought, ‘it’s not really a part of my class parameters,’ but it was already very, very apparent at this point that it was so much more than a class assignment,” she said.

Blanchard immediately incorporated as a nonprofit. While some organizations wait long periods for their official 501c3 nonprofit status from the IRS, The Grateful Garment Project was granted the status in just over a month, on May 15, 2011.

“That’s miraculous. That’s like parting of the Red Sea miraculous,” Blanchard laughed. “The reason I talk about this is every step of the way amazing things have happened; the Universe is lined up along the way, and people literally show up out of nowhere to help us so we can do this work.”

Blanchard then offered to help facilities in Alameda County, and a contact there introduced The Grateful Garment Project to facility managers across the state. She said the group is now providing clothing and other items for facilities in 15 counties.

More facilities are on the waiting list, and Blanchard and The Grateful Garment’s other unpaid staff member—her son William Cotter, who served eight years in the United States Air Force with time in the military police—are getting to them as quickly as they can.

“We’re the only organization out there that has this sort of mission; I have yet to find anybody else,” she said. Calls are coming in from other states for help, but for now she’s maintaining focus on California.

Feeling Fortunate to Help

Blanchard runs the organization from her laptop and cell phone, while continuing her graduate studies in nonprofit management. Her goal is to obtain a doctorate degree and become “Dr. Lisa,” she said.

“If you had said to me two years ago, ‘you’re going to be running a state-wide nonprofit that you run from your living room with your computer,’ I would have told you, ‘you’re nuts,’” she said.

“It makes my heart so happy to know that even though people will never know who I am, or never know The Grateful Garment Project, or never know all the people that have counted panties or folded brochures, we make such a huge difference every day. I feel so fortunate.”

To donate or volunteer, contact The Grateful Garment Project.