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Sunday, March 03, 2024
Jessica Randall

Courtesy of Jessica Randall

Sexual Assault Awareness Month: How a UW-Madison freshman uses clothing drives to make a difference

Jessica Randall started organizing clothing drives for survivors of sexual assault in April 2020, and the annual practice has continued during her time at UW-Madison.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and Jessica Randall, a first-year student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been busy organizing the survivor clothing drive she runs by herself. The effort, which she first organized in high school, is now a regular part of her campus life. 

Randall’s drive takes clothes, underwear and monetary gifts and distributes them to hospitals for survivors whose clothing has been taken as evidence for investigations. The next drive will be on April 26 at 132 Noland Hall. The Daily Cardinal sat down with Randall to discuss her life, the clothing drives and how students and campus community members can better support survivors of sexual assault.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How did the idea for the drive come to be?

I started this my junior year of high school. I was sitting at home on the couch during COVID and I found a story online of this woman telling her experience. I’d known two other people who had a similar experience, and as a survivor myself, I couldn’t imagine what that would be like. 

I didn’t have a similar experience, walking out of the hospital in paper scrubs and disposable underwear. But I decided that something needed to be done. I was involved in a lot of clubs at my school, and we had done different drives for school supplies. I asked my principal, “Hey, do you think I could host a clothing drive for a week here?” 

Well, it turns out that it didn’t last a week — I had to extend it to whole month-long drive because people kept giving and giving. The community really stepped in.

After I gave the donations to [two hospitals in the La Crosse] area, I realized that the work wasn’t done, that it was a problem prevalent in other places. Unfortunately, the supplies of the clothing would have to be resupplied every year, so I decided, why not make this into a year-round project? 

There was so much support from everyone in the community learning about this issue that they might not have thought about and the hospitals. I had people reach out to me and say, “Hey, I’ve experienced walking out of the hospital like this — it was so dehumanizing after having already been assaulted, it felt like a whole other injustice on top of that. Thank you for spreading awareness.”

It’s not just about the physical clothes, the donations — it’s also about spreading awareness and empowerment about sexual assault.

How does the drive work logistically? Do you have other volunteers or distribution partners?

I actually run this alone. I’m in a public health class this semester, and I talked to my professor about contacts through UW Hospitals, and that was a good way to get in contact. But I run it by myself — I reach out to hospitals to share my idea, and usually they love the idea and say that they would love to receive the donations. 

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Then I tell them that I can give monetary donations so that [they] can buy what they need or [they] can send me the clothing items that are needed. I’ve donated checks, I’ve donated huge, four or five boxes worth of clothes to different hospitals — it really just depends on the hospital’s need. Something I found with this project is that I feel like many people have ideas in the community, and they think, “Oh, well I don’t have the resources to do anything, I’m just one person.” But I found out that as long as you stay motivated and dedicated, and you reach out to one or two people to get started, you can do it. I hope people have taken inspiration from seeing this happen and bring their own projects into play.

You’ve spoken about how you’re a survivor yourself. How does that experience affect or inform you as you work to help other survivors? What does it mean to you to help them in this way?

Unfortunately, many people are survivors of sexual assault, so most people know a survivor of sexual assault. [The drives have] helped me connect to people and really understand the effects that this has. Many people might think, “Leaving the hospital in paper scrubs, like ‘Oh, deal with it,’” but you’ve suffered such a trauma that you didn’t ask for, that you don’t deserve, that’s not your fault in the slightest. 

Then [you’re] being relabeled when you walk out of the hospital — instead of being able to wear comfy clothes, your clothes are taken into evidence. It made me realize what an impact this would have on these people. 

[Also] talking with people and being able to say, “Hey, I’m a survivor too — I understand, let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.” I feel it’s helped with my empathy toward the issue. It’s helped with spreading awareness about it. I run the Survivor Clothing Project Instagram and Facebook, and I’d like to spread awareness about sexual assault through those. I feel like that’s really helped with the empowerment of sexual assault survivors and the education about sexual assault. 

Most people assume only females are sexually assaulted, but the numbers are really high for people of all genders. When I collect clothes, I like to specify that these clothes are all sizes, all genders. Because anyone, regardless of your race, your age, your gender, anything — anyone can be sexually assaulted. That’s an important message to get out there.

What has the reaction been from the community members and people affected toward the drive? What does that reaction mean to you?

I’ve had lots of people reach out, including the nurses that I’ve worked with at the hospitals, [who have] emailed me periodically [to say], “Hey, I just sent someone home with comfortable clothes.” It warms my heart to know that something I started is having such a big impact, but it’s not just me.

I started the idea, but nothing would be possible without the news stations that cover it, without the clubs that help support the drives, without the people in the community who care and take an interest and are able to donate.

I won an award for this through National Philanthropy Day, and they asked me, “What does this award mean to you?” But that’s not why you do the work in the first place. You do the work because you see something wrong, and then you do something to address it. I want to do an MD/MPH path to be a physician and have a master’s in public health. 

This has inspired me to do more. [Clothing for survivors] is not a small topic, but it has a smaller effect compared to other issues like gun violence or things at a larger level. It’s inspired me to start looking into what else I can do because, unfortunately, in the world there are lots of things that need to be fixed and need to have projects, or non-profits or efforts to help with that. It’s inspired me knowing that, “Hey, I can do this” if I try and reach out and if I’m passionate about it.

Sexual assault is an issue that’s important and prevalent everywhere, but especially on college campuses. What are ways that our campus community can better help and support survivors?

Talking about it, not making it a taboo topic and trying to decrease the rape culture. Lots of people are like, “Oh, well, you were wearing showy clothes, so you were asking for it,” or “You shouldn’t have had that many drinks.” Just talking about it and calling people out. Whether that’s in a group and someone says something that might be a little offensive, or might be a little untrue, say, “Hey, what do you mean by that?” 

Friends calling friends out actually has a really big impact [rather] than seeing a sign somewhere saying [something] like “Sexual assault is bad.” That’s something that can help. But, there’s also many organizations on campus that work to promote victim empowerment and to spread awareness. I think our school does a pretty good job of spreading the word, but I also think there’s always more we can do.

How has organizing and running the drive changed or affected you? Have you had any big takeaways from this experience? Are you still figuring those things out?

I realized what an impact someone can have if they put their mind to it. When I first did the huge COVID drive, I would collect clothes in my basement in a spare room and spend hours sorting through it. It was a little hard to manage school and doing this plus all the other things I was a part of. 

It’s hard to take away one big thing because there are so many things that play into it. But [it’d probably be] knowing that really, anyone can make a difference if they put their mind to it — if they talk to the right people and spread the word about what they’re doing and ask for help. Lots of people think, “Oh, I don’t need to ask for help.” But if you ask for help, people are really willing to help you out. 

It’s made me a better communicator, a better leader, better at talking to people and hearing different people’s stories, empathizing and relating to people. I’ve met so many people throughout this process, whether at the hospital, people reaching out to me, people who’ve been survivors themselves [and] the schools I’ve been working with. 

When will the next drive be? What should community members who want to donate look to bring or contribute?

Every year, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, I hold a drive [both] here at UW-Madison and back in my hometown, Onalaska, [Wisconsin]. With the help of the American Medical Student Association, we had one collection date a couple of weeks ago. The last collection date for UW-Madison is going to be next Wednesday, [April 26]. Monetary donations are accepted via Venmo, and those help a lot, especially on a college campus where it might be hard to go to a store and buy new underwear, bras, things like that. 

The main donations the hospitals need now are new bras of all sizes, preferably sports bras, and underwear of all sizes and [for] all genders. The drive will be at Noland Hall at 8 p.m. [on April 26], but if you can’t make it, you can always send donations to the Student Activity Center, and the front desk will help you to the AMSA desk. 

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Liam Beran

Liam Beran is the Campus News Editor for The Daily Cardinal and a third-year English major. Throughout his time at the Cardinal, he's written articles for campus, state and in-depth news. Follow him on Twitter at @liampberan.

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