When victims of sexual assault go to the emergency room, they often have to give up their clothes as evidence.

Project Dignity, a Grand Forks nonprofit, aims to fill in gaps in the reporting system by distributing clothing and toiletries to those survivors.

“I found out that victims were having to leave the hospital in scrubs or hospital gowns, and that was not OK with me,” said Noelle Myers, the who founded Project Dignity in 2017.

Altru staff or Community Violence Intervention Center advocates give victims the project bags, which carry shampoo, conditioner, body wash, deodorant, shaving supplies, soft washcloths, hard-sided cups with straws, lip balm and a full outfit.

“Project Dignity is incredibly important,” said Melanie Neumann, the clinical services coordinator for Light of Hope at the CVIC. “Victims have already been through so much at that point. They’re scared, they’re stressed, they’re traumatized. And any way trauma can be reduced is a good thing.”

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CVIC advocates take the Project Dignity supplies to Altru, where nurses then hand out bags to victims.

“I try to put together bags with a full set of toiletries because, for the most part, they’re not even given a toothbrush,” Myers said. “They can be in the hospital for upwards of 15 to 20 hours, and they’re not offered a toothbrush or a shower or anything to clean up with after they leave.”

Myers said she keeps leggings in all sizes because those are comfortable and easy to wear.

Project Dignity has men’s and women’s clothes from infant sizes to 6X. Myers said they’ve used every size.

Last year, the Dignity Project went through 200 bags, 54 of them kids’ bags.

Nearly 80 of those bags were for women ages 18 to 35, the biggest demographic that uses the nonprofit.

“We want to give them that dignity of being able to walk out feeling like themselves,” Myers said.

‘A flaw in the system’

The nonprofit came about because Myers heard stories of other women who had reported their sexual assaults.

“One of my good friends was sent home in a hospital gown and paper socks in January,” Myers said. “Hearing some of the stories of girls who had reported and what they were sent home in and how horrible it was for them, I realized I can do something about this.”

Myers called the fact that victims of assault were often sent home in scrubs or hospital gowns “a flaw in the system.”

“It’s not that the police, the nurses don’t care. This is just a flaw in the system, but this is something we can do,” Myers said.

When victims walk out of the hospital in scrubs or having not been able to shower or brush their teeth, they feel everyone knows what happened, Myers said.

“And that’s not what we want. We want to return their dignity, to help them feel better. We want to get them back on the path of healing as fast as possible,” Myers said.

And the nonprofit has had a great impact.

“That’s the thing I hear the most, ‘I just wanted someone to believe me,’” Myers said. “And because they get shampoo and clothes, they know somebody does believe them.”

Neumann said she’s heard from numerous clients that they wished they had a program such as Project Dignity when they reported their assaults.

“I heard from an advocate who was with a woman in the ER, that she needed to give up an expensive pair of jeans as evidence and she was provided with a LuLaRoe outfit from Project Dignity,” Neumann said. “She couldn’t stop talking about how comfortable the outfit was. The advocate said it made her emotional to see that.”

Myers said the Grand Forks has the “perfect storm of situations” that create a higher-than-average number of incidents of sexual assault or sex trafficking.

“We’re a college town, we have an airforce base, we’re smack in the middle of a big city and an oil field and we’re close to the border,” Myers said.

Myers said she is working on getting Project Dignity bags into the Fargo hospital and eventually would like the nonprofit, which now has a board, to be statewide.

To donate new or like-new clothing to Project Dignity, contact Myers through the Project Dignity Facebook page or projectdignitynd@gmail.com.

The CVIC crisis line is open at 701-746-8900.