April 3, 2014 at 10:26 AM ET
Dr. John Pedersen, a plastic surgeon of Akron, Ohio, does some nose jobs and facelifts, but much of what he does allows patients to recover their body image after an illness or trauma. "Yes, we do aesthetic surgery," he told TODAY.com, "but at the same time we do a lot that makes them feel whole again."
It was that desire to help others that led to his founding Breast Oasis, a non-profit organization that donates bras to women in need while providing health care information and emotional support. Rather than spend "oodles of money" on advertising, Pedersen found a new approach to connect better with the local community.
"When we do our work in terms of reconstructions, your breasts are bigger, smaller or reconstructed. By the time you enter my door to the time you leave, you will not be the same," he said. "Nationwide, that is a huge number, and hence a huge number of women that have bras that go to the trash. I thought that was just a huge waste."
His wife, a gynecologist, suggested that local shelters for women who have escaped domestic violence would be in need of such donations. "A light went off," he recalled. "They said, 'Are you kidding? We have shirts, shoes and skirts, but of course we have no bras.'"
So Breast Oasis was born in 2009. The group collects gently used or new bras through drop boxes or online. They are dry cleaned, sorted by size and given to women who need them. More than 110,000 undergarments have been donated to various domestic violence, homeless and service organizations, according to Breast Oasis. There are now affiliate groups in 13 states and partnerships with Bloomingdale's and other retailers and groups.
"Half of the bras that we're getting are new — we're cutting the tags off to give them away," Pedersen said. "People are going out of their way to purchase bras just to give them away. It just blows my mind."
Beyond just helping with a practical need, Pedersen said it transforms the way women look at themselves.
"Our bras and words are a physical and emotional gift," Pedersen said. "We can say that with every distribution there is never a dry eye. We are welcomed as if it is Christmas."
Pedersen also hopes to change the minds of people whose perception of his field is warped by celebrities with seemingly impossible amounts of plastic surgery. "Plastic surgeons have been pigeonholed," he said. "Our public image needs a facelift — pun intended — and Breastoasis.org is a great place to start."
It was important to provide an educational component as well. In honor of his mother, who died from breast cancer, he felt it was important to reach this "captive audience."
"These are the people most at risk of not having good health care," Pedersen said, "and these are the people we see usually in the very last stages of breast cancer. Why not utilize this as a method of teaching breast health?"
When volunteers distribute the bras, they educate women on topics such as how to do breast self-examinations and other information they might not otherwise receive. "Then they get the bras," he said. "They get access to health care education and understanding, plus we're providing the bra itself."
Perhaps just as important is a network of emotional support for the women. After finding that many who donated wanted to "express some words" to recipients, Breast Oasis created a BIN — bra identification number — to match them up with messages of hope and encouragement. Those who get a bra with a BIN number can see the sentiments online.
"It's across the board, from religious to other things — from the person donating the bra do those receiving the bras," Pedersen said.
And those on the receiving end are grateful. "We have gals coming through these programs say, 'This is crazy, but I want to thank you for what you did. I can't believe a system is out there in terms of something so remedial, in terms of who we are and what we do in life.'"