They say confidence comes from within, but according to Jessica Johnson, what’s on the outside matters, too. For years, she observed girls refusing to dress out for physical education. A juvenile detention officer for a number of years, when she learned the cause of their defiance, she was faced with a glaring need that was going unnoticed and unacknowledged.
“These girls didn’t have the proper undergarments, so they were embarrassed to undress in front of the other girls,” explains Johnson. “I immediately saw a need that I could address.”
Founding Jess’ Bra Closet in 2011, Johnson began collecting lightly used and new bras for girls and women of all ages and sizes. Extending to other needs like personal hygiene products, undergarments and even socks and undershirts for boys, Johnson and her team are working to fill an unconventional need in the community.
“Not everyone can afford the $50 to $60 that a bra costs,” explains Johnson, noting that often those funds are allotted to other necessities like utility bills or food. “That’s something people forget, though. We just assume everyone has the same access that we do to these necessities.”
Johnson, however, is working to bring some truth to those assumptions with Jess’ Bra Closet, one of the few organizations of its kind in the United States. For Johnson, the goal is simple: to restore confidence by offering necessities and creating a community that cares.
“Our self-esteem is so tied to our appearance, whether we like it or not,” she says. “When we go out in public, we want people to respect us, but that’s hard when you don’t have the right support.”
Johnson’s mission doesn’t stop in the local community. Since the founding of Jess’ Bra Closet, her team has extended their services to women across the country, as well as in other countries like Mexico, with nearly 18,000 bras provided locally and globally to date. According to her, the need is greater than one might imagine, and that is due to a lack of interest in the topic.
Bras, underwear and personal hygiene products, while crucial, are often put on the proverbial fundraising backburner due to being deemed inappropriate for wider conversation. Johnson has observed people largely shying away from the topic, resulting in not only lesser funding and donations, but an attitude of silence that perpetuates damaging attitudes.
“Talking about these needs is so important,” she explains. “You don’t know who is in need and you will be surprised who can benefit.”
The Jess’ Bra Closet team fits everyone who comes to them to ensure they receive their proper size, with a strict policy to never discriminate based on the numbers and letters on the tag. In addition, the team also caters to younger clients by giving health talks and promoting body positivity.
“Self-esteem is something central to our mission,” Johnson says, noting that these seminars for young girls include sizing for training bras, as well as talks about hygiene and empowerment. “The more these kids know, the more we can help them.”
An annual “Back 2 School” fundraiser is one of Jess’ Bra Closet’s largest events, catering not only to what goes under clothes, but what is needed in the classroom. Backpacks, notebooks and other essentials are given away, while parents and children are invited to talk and network.
In addition, Johnson and her team also partner with No Glass Slippers to collect and distribute prom dresses to Baton Rouge-area girls in need.
For Johnson, the nonprofit road isn’t a straightforward path, but rather an ever-changing outlet for providing the community with what they need to not just live, but live well.
“I’m always asking myself the question, ‘How can we make her feel more confident?” Johnson says. “Sometimes it really is the small things.”