Melissa walked along a dark stretch of Lake Merritt in Oakland, feeling a little woozy. She'd been drinking at an '80s party hosted by a friend. She knew it was late. Normally she wouldn't walk alone. But she was only a few blocks from home. It was just a short distance.
About a block from her apartment, a car pulled up and a man yanked her inside before speeding away. Melissa, who asked that her name be changed for this story, watched her apartment building whiz by out of the corner of her eye.
"I had a million things going through my head," she says. "There was the fear I would never get back out of that car. And this is going to sound ridiculous, but to be honest, my number one prevailing thought—and I must have been a little bit crazy at the time—was that I had my dog at home, and there was no one who was going to come let him out."
The man stopped the car and raped Melissa, beating her in the face as she tried to fight back. About a half hour later, she thinks, he shoved her out of the car and peeled away. Shocked and dazed, Melissa's bloody fingers dialed a friend, who immediately picked her up and rushed her to the hospital.
The details of the hospital remain hazy, but she clearly remembers at least two things: they gave her two Power Bars during the more than three-hour exam, and they gave her new underwear, pants, socks, a long-sleeve pajama top and a hoodie sweatshirt.
When Melissa's friend dropped her off at her apartment building, she pulled the hood up and over her face, shielding herself, and walked the rest of the way. Her dog anxiously greeted her.
"I can't imagine leaving the hospital in any other state," Melissa says. "It would have been horrifying and embarrassing, and I think that if I had been in a position where I had to walk home with my bits hanging out of a hospital gown, that's the memory that would have stayed with me. And I didn't have to do that. It's because someone provided comfortable clothing for me."
That "someone" is San Jose resident Lisa Blanchard, who just one year before Melissa's attack founded the nonprofit Grateful Garment Project (GGP). In less than three years, the organization has grown from collecting clothes for the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) facility at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center to equipping 20 other California counties, including Sonoma County, where Christine Castillo, executive director of Verity—which provides rape-crisis counseling and support—has been integral in establishing the project.
The California Emergency Management Agency reported that in the 2010–2011 fiscal year—the most recent available data—nearly 30,000 people accessed rape crisis centers statewide. The survivors range in age from infants to senior citizens, and include both females and males.
Social workers say the numbers are probably much higher, since sexual assault remains widely underreported due to stigma, shame and victim-blaming. Unlike Melissa's case, an estimated 75 to 80 percent of victims know their attackers, and there's sometimes pressure from family and friends to keep quiet.
Sexual Assault Response Team centers often run on what Blanchard calls "duct tape and Band-Aid budgets." Counties are mandated by the state to have a SART facility, and yet the state allots just $45,000 annually to pay for them, according to advocacy agency California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. That amounts to just $775 per county.
"It's really kind of staggering to think that all these organizations had little or no resources to help survivors," Blanchard says. "The nurses or advocates that support the survivors a lot of times bought stuff out of their own pockets."
In addition to new clothing and prepackaged food, GGP provides books, toys and DVDs for children, privacy screens, and even pieces of exam equipment when older gear breaks down.
Sue Barnes, director of the YWCA's rape crisis center, calls the GGP's work "phenomenal."
"The clothing is huge, because very often the police have had to take them from the survivor because it is evidence," Barnes says.
Requests regularly come from out-of-state SART centers for information on how Blanchard started GGP and how it operates. She says the focus remains firmly on California for the moment, and she hopes to serve all 58 counties in the future.
"I hope she keeps growing and growing," says Melissa, who has since moved to Michigan to be near family. "I will be forever grateful."
For more information, go to gratefulgarment.org.