Jess’ Bra Closet is here to help _lowres

Photo by ROSE VELAZQUEZ -- Jessica Johnson started the nonprofit Jess' Bra Closet to provide new and gently used undergarments to low-income women and girls in the Baton Rouge area and beyond.

Whether it was supervising incarcerated youth or tutoring youngsters in reading and math, Jessica Johnson has always loved to help out. Four years ago, she turned her attention to undergarments.

As it turns out, that’s a big deal for girls, something Johnson found while helping out at high schools and middle schools. Some of the girls were failing physical education classes and losing good behavior points because they refused to dress out.

Johnson said she discovered many didn’t have enough quality undergarments to feel comfortable changing in front of their classmates.

“Even that one pretty bra, for whatever reason, may be dirty or just not up to par with what they would think,” she said. “To keep other girls from teasing them or whatever, they would not dress out.”

Johnson, who had spent 10 years as a corrections officer in a juvenile detention center, decided to change that, helping out once again by opening Jess’ Bra Closet.

The nonprofit organization provides new and gently used undergarments to low-income women and girls in the Baton Rouge area.

Initially working out of the McKinley High School Alumni Center, Johnson’s organization picked up traction, and the number of donations became so overwhelming she often had to store the surplus at her house.

Three years after launching, the group moved into its current location at 4242 Government St.

Today, Jess’ Bra Closet is a tightly-knit community of friends and family members looking for ways to help.

“Once I informed people of what it was I wanted to do, some people jumped on board,” Johnson said. “Some thought it was a good idea. They didn’t realize it was a need, an even bigger need now since we’ve been providing bras since 2011.”

Johnson said Jess’ Bra Closet hosts bra drives throughout the year to keep a steady stream of donations for women of all sizes.

In addition to providing women with free quality undergarments, the organization also provides bra-sizing services and participates in community partnerships with groups like the Cinderella Project, a Louisiana nonprofit which collects and distributes prom dresses to high school girls who can’t otherwise afford them.

“Anybody who has any organization dealing with females where it would need us or want us to talk about the importance of wearing a proper bra, we conduct bra fittings to help the teens or the women who don’t know their bra size,” Johnson said. “We just talk about that type of thing.”

Though Jess’ Bra Closet is based in Baton Rouge, it serves women throughout Louisiana as well as Texas and Georgia through social media and its website, jessbracloset.org.

The larger a woman’s size, Johnson said, the more expensive bras can become. Johnson said her experience as a single mother helped her understand how difficult it can be to afford basic and often overlooked necessities.

“I just consider Jess’ Bra Closet a helping hand because it may be that married mother who needs a helping hand to provide for herself or her daughters,” Johnson said. “It may be a single working mother who needs to provide not just for herself but her female daughters.”

Johnson’s commitment to help doesn’t stop with her nonprofit. She also serves as vice president of the Kiwanis Club of South Baton Rouge and is a member of the Junior League of Baton Rouge. Through the Kiwanis Club, Johnson participates in the East Baton Rouge Parish School System’s Volunteers in Public Schools program, which recruits volunteers to tutor students in reading and math.

For Johnson, it is all about being one of the first faces youngsters see on their first day of school.

In 2011, she returned to school to earn a degree in criminal justice at Southern University with a goal of enhancing her ability to work with juveniles. She graduated in 2013.