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Meet Nadya Okamoto, the 18 year old non-profit founder and menstrual equity activist

Meet Nadya Okamoto, the 18 year old non-profit founder and menstrual equity activist

Editor’s note: Recently, we launched our charity program, LOLA Gives Back, to help provide feminine care products to women in need in the US. We’ve donated over 100,000 products to date, and this is just the beginning!

If you’d like to Support Nadya’s organization, Camions of Care, you can donate directly through their site. You can also use this link to purchase a LOLA subscription, and we’ll donate $5 for every purchase.

In the spring of my freshman year of high school, my mom lost her job. Within weeks, we could no longer afford our home and had no choice but to move out and enter what I call our “time of transition,” several months of legal homelessness couchsurfing with friends. During this time, my commute to school changed from twelve minutes to two hours on multiple bus lines. I began to recognize familiar faces on my route, and befriend some fellow riders and individuals who camped out at the bus stops in downtown Portland. A majority of the women that I would chat with were also experiencing homelessness.

During this time, I became fascinated by other people’s stories of resilience in the face of adversity. This was mostly because it helped to distract my mind from my own personal situation, reminded me of how fortunate I was, and kept me working hard to pursue my education. Every night before bed, I wrote in a journal about my day and recorded the stories of the many women I met. Over the course of a year, I noticed that difficulties with procuring menstrual hygiene products was a recurring theme. My journal contained an anthology of stories of women using toilet paper, stolen pillowcases, and, most commonly, brown paper bags to deal with their periods. I had collected a plethora of quotes about how embarrassed women were to ask for menstrual hygiene products, but how very uncomfortable having poor menstrual hygiene made them.

Over the course of a year, I noticed that difficulties with procuring menstrual hygiene products was a recurring theme.

Less than a month ago, I heard and then shared a “period story” from a woman named Amy on our blog and on Huffington Post. Learning about the rise in advocacy initiatives surrounding menstrual hygiene advocacy, she was inspired to share her story of when she was 19-years-old and struggling with homelessness herself. She recalls living at a shelter and making a wishlist for Christmas one winter. Feeling like she didn’t need much, she listed the one thing she had been wishing for for months: menstrual hygiene products. In accordance with the stigma sensed around the topic of menstruation, she listed “hygiene products,” on her list. She recalls crying with “immense disappointment” when she opened her present on Christmas and found a “basket of razors and hair products.” Amy was directly affected by the lack of open conversation around menstrual hygiene to the point that she didn’t feel comfortable to ask for the products explicitly, and the services she was receiving at the time didn’t think of menstruation in the category of hygiene.

The more women I met, the more eager I became to figure out how to help. I started doing research on homelessness and menstruation, and was baffled by what I found. I learned that most shelters and nonprofits serving impoverished or battered women do not consistently provide menstrual hygiene products – either due to a lack of resources, or a lack of displayed need. This creates a vicious cycle, in which shelters fail to prioritize menstrual hygiene products, and women are too embarrassed to advocate for the products they need.

Adequate menstrual hygiene is even less of a priority in many developing countries where periods are the number one reason why girls miss school. In many countries, a girl’s first period, which signifies the official transition from girlhood into womanhood, often coincides with that girl dropping out of school, getting married at a very young age, being socially isolated or, worse still, undergoing female genital mutilation. For example, in Kenya, girls miss an average of five days of school each month, a full week of class, because they lack access to menstrual products, and the privacy needed to change them. It drove me nuts thinking that girls out there were missing out on a full quarter of their education, just because of their period.

The more women I met, the more eager I became to figure out how to help.

I knew I had to do something to make adequate menstrual hygiene more accessible for all women and girls, no matter their circumstances. In spring of my sophomore year, I founded Camions of Care, a youth-run, global nonprofit organization that celebrates menstrual hygiene through advocacy, youth leadership, and service.

My most memorable moment in leading Camions of Care was on one of my first distribution trips visiting one of our partner shelters to hand out care packages of feminine hygiene products. When a woman asked what was in the brown paper package I was handing her, and I told her that it was full of tampons, pads, and panty liners, she instantly began to cry. She told me she was shocked that someone was giving her these products — products that she had been so scared to ask for, but longed for in her many years of homelessness. It was that moment that pushed me to realize the potential Camions of Care had, which elevated my dedication to continuing to expand our services and outreach programs.

Our programming is currently focused on two pillars. The first is global distribution of menstrual hygiene products. Through community donations of product and monetary contributions, we’re able to funnel menstrual hygiene products to women in need. For every dollar that is donated to our organization, we are able to provide the products a woman needs for an entire menstrual cycle. In the last two years, we have distributed enough products to address over 25,000 periods, by working with 40 nonprofit partners in 17 states and nine countries.

Our second focus is to engage and empower youth leaders to become menstrual health advocates in their local communities. We currently oversee a network of chapters at 39 high schools and universities across the country, and that number is growing steadily. Our chapters contribute to all program pillars of our organizations. They serve their communities and make menstrual hygiene more accessible for women and girls in their areas by hosting feminine hygiene product drives and care package packing parties. Our chapters fight to break the stigma around periods by starting conversations through social media campaigns and engaging their campuses with peer education programs. They also support our overall efforts as a Camions of Care family by fundraising for our parent organization.

I am so proud of the work we’ve been able to do, and fired up by the enthusiasm I’ve seen in women and girls across the country all working to tackle this issue. I am excited to keep growing Camions of Care into a sustainable organization, so we can continue serving and advocating for the friends I made during those long bus rides, and many more women I will never meet.