WOONSOCKET – Jennifer Jolicoeur probably hasn’t had a normal night’s rest in weeks, but she knows people are counting on her.
And you can’t put northern Rhode Island into world history books from the comfort of a bedroom.
Jolicoeur, a North Smithfield resident and the owner of Woonsocket-based Athena’s Home Novelties, has spent the past decade collecting new and lightly used bras with the dream of getting into the Guinness World Records book – by stringing them into the longest chain in world history.
The project, known as the Athena’s Cup, aims to raise awareness about breast cancer and the importance of regular exams, and also serves as a fundraiser. It has allowed Jolicoeur to raise some $46,000 for breast cancer research and support over the past ten years.
Now, it’s time to string 200,000 bras together, and it will take a lot of help to get her to the finish line. Because the pressure is on.
Hundreds have gathered at River’s Edge Recreational Complex in Woonsocket over the past four days to help Jolicoeur to reach the goal, but she’ll still need hundreds more.
“They’re here because they believe in me,” she told NRI NOW this week, looking teary-eyed across the expansive soccer field where she’s working to make her stand.
It seems collecting the bras, a ten year project that’s been a fundraising goal for her multimillion dollar adult novelty business, is just the start of the work.
Establishing a world record is serious business, and Jolicoeur’s army must follow a strict set of guidelines established by the World Book. That means that to start, each and every bra must be walked by two judges – community leaders who can’t work for or be related to the woman behind the project – as well as two “loggers.” The length of the complete bra chain must be measured, and the entire process must be video-recorded.
And as it turns out, there’s no guide book on how to efficiently string 200,000 bras into a chain.
The current world record holder in Australia linked 169,000.
To begin, Jolicoeur had to transport 1,000 boxes holding 200 bras each – held in storage units across the city – to her destination. UPS donated some time to help out with the project, getting 120 boxes to the park.
Her husband and son moved the remaining 880.
On Friday, Oct. 4, a group of volunteers gathered at the park. With judges from Guiness World Record set to arrive on Tuesday, Oct. 7, the crew would need to count 40,000 bras over the course of the day to stay on track. Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, who has leant her support to the effort, was the first judge.
The team worked for 12 hours, and by the end of the day, they’d strung and counted only 8,000 bras.
A fresh group of volunteers arrived on Saturday, again working 12 hours through cold, windy conditions, but by that evening, the woman known affectionately by many employees as “mother goddess,” knew their efforts wouldn’t be enough.
“I had the moment when I realized: ‘you’re not going to make it,'” she said. “I just felt despair. The numbers didn’t add up. I was devastated.”
At dinner with her group of volunteers at Chan’s that night, Jolicoeur had to make a choice: abandon the overwhelming project and tell everyone to go home, or somehow try to see it through. She surveyed the large group seated before her – and no one wanted to quit.
Moments later, Jolicoeur says the friend seated beside her handed her a paper saying, “I think I opened your fortune cookie.”
She looked down to see three words on the small paper scroll: “Don’t stop now.”
“You want it so bad,” she said of the record, noting that volunteers have traveled to Rhode Island from across New England, renting hotel rooms for the weekend so they could help out.
When NRI NOW arrived at the park on Monday afternoon, it was clear that only shear force of will was keeping Jolicoeur awake. Roughly 100 people were working diligently, assigned to specific tasks from “hookers,” stringing the bras into sets of ten, to “walkers,” who strolled by the judges and the counters holding the small ropes of brassieres in the air. With various cup and length sizes making up each string, additional volunteers were needed to measure each chain before it could be stretched across the parameter into piles surrounding the field.
“It’s literally a chain of people creating the bra chain,” Jolicoeur said.
Just then, gusts of wind knocked over a tent, and papers flew through the air, only to be chased down and re-filed. Jolicoeur had purchased and set up five tents on Friday – needed in case the cool weather turns to rain – only to see them knocked down by wind and broken moments after the project began.
Now, she stood up on a metal chair.
“We have hit 61,000,” she yelled, to loud applause. “Thank you. Now get back to work.”
Despite all the pressure, it seems there’s still hope. The Guinness Word Book called this morning, and the Athena’s Cup deadline has been extended until next Wednesday, Oct. 16.
But Jolicoeur, a big dreamer who’s made a multimillion dollar business and inspired thousands touting her pro-body “sisterhood” approach to sexuality, is spread thin. The news means another week away from her business, and up to 84 hours outdoors in a field full of bras. She says she’s overwhelmed at the thought, but it seems she’s predominantly grateful, taking the time to hug and greet each volunteer as they arrive or leave.
“These people persisted,” she said. “The people that came so far were passionate. They wanted to be here.”
Her volunteers include fellow “Goddesses” and “Adoni,” – her name for trained sellers with their own small businesses peddling her wares – along with high school students, senior citizens and even the local police chief. They also include people from various stages of her life who showed up when they heard about the project, some of whom Jolicoeur says she hasn’t seen in more than 20 years.
Goddesses in California and other states across the country who couldn’t be there have sent in supplies, including pizzas, water, fruit, toilet paper and ponchos.
Those on site Monday included Stacy Lynn Vieira, a Goddess Jolicoeur says inspired the Athena’s Cup when she took off her bra after a company meeting years ago in Florida. Others in the room followed suit and soon, the garments formed a pile in the center of the room. Jolicoeur strung them together on a whim, and had her “ah ha” moment.
“It was magic,” Jolicoeur said. “And it was all because she had a bra that was poking her.”
The group took a picture that day and Athena’s Cup was born.
Of those in the photo, one has since died of cancer, and another took her own life while grieving the loss. Jolicoeur says they are not the only close friends she’s lost to the disease.
Emotions ran high this week as she remembered that time ten years ago, noting that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in her lifetime.
To stay positive, Jolicoeur keeps a gratitude journal, and friends often gift her the empty books. This week, she says she filled one to the end, and with eyes closed, reached into her book shelf to pick a new one at random.
The one she selected was a forgotten novelty, a present from Heather – the friend who was there the day the project was born – and who later committed suicide – and the book was inscribed.
“Thank you for following your dreams,” the note read. “Thanks to you, we’ve all been able to follow ours.”
“She’s here with me today,” said Jolicoeur. “I felt like it was a sign: Keep going.”
Now that the group has established a system, she says they’re averaging 15,000 bras a day, but more help is needed.
“We need hundreds of people to show up and help,” she said.
She notes that the work will be a great project for those who need community service hours, and is hopeful entire sports teams will come.
To help make history and be part of Athena’s Cup, visit River’s Edge Recreational Complex in Woonsocket any time between now and Wednesday, Oct. 16 between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., and help out.
Editor’s note: An original version of this story mistakenly identified the park as River Island Park. We apologize for the error.