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Formerly Homeless Teen Says Tampons Are Key to Global Development. Period.

June 16, 2016Posted by Helaina Hovitz

At age 15, Nadya Okamoto found herself having some very adult conversations with female residents at a local Portland, Oregon homeless shelter where she was staying.

More specifically, she listened to countless stories from women of varying ages who described having to forage for anything they could find to manage their periods every month—including paper they found on the street.

She quickly determined that finding clothes, food, and shelter weren’t the biggest challenges these women faced: it was a lack of access to feminine hygiene products. In their place were socks, pillowcases, and even brown paper grocery bags, items that could lead to dangerous infections or toxic shock syndrome. Some of these women had to miss work and lost their jobs because the pain was so intense, or because they were too worried about bleeding through their clothing.

“Women would tell me stories about having to ride the bus all day, hoping to find someone they knew at a nonprofit who could direct them to a place that stocked sanitary products,” Okamoto said.

“Organizations would often run out because they weren’t aware of how big of a need it was and weren’t replenishing resources, and people are afraid to talk about periods, even though all women get their periods every month for the majority of their life. “

After doing her research, Okamoto was even more horrified to learn that women in developing countries usually miss work every single month because of their periods, and it’s the number one reason girls miss school. For women ages 12-52, that’s 25% of their entire lifetime.

“If you care about our world, if you care about gender equality, if you care about everyone being able to reach their full potential, you need to care about menstrual hygiene,” she said.

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It was then that Okamoto decided that that no matter what age, gender, or race you are, caring about women’s menstrual health is the key to helping women reach their full potential, both here in the U.S. and overseas. Therefore, she says, the menstruation movement is the key to global development.

After surviving a tumultuous adolescence full of trauma in its various forms, Okamoto found strength in helping others by creating Camions of Care, now an official nonprofit that takes its name from a multi-lingual word for “truck.” The name, she says, is symbolic of the way her organization prioritizes mobility and will travel any distance to ensure that girls have access to feminine hygiene.

“We will literally send trucks full of tampons and pads anywhere that they may be needed,” she added.

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Once her own living situation became stable, Nadya enlisted the help of her classmate Vince Forand, who “didn’t really know much about periods at all, but would be great at the logistics and bookkeeping side of operating a nonprofit.” The two spent six hours hunkered down in a local Starbucks drawing up a business plan for what would become her youth-led nonprofit, a project she’d go on to manage while staying on top of her grades and participating in nine different clubs, including being the only girl on her boy’s varsity baseball team.

Once a grant from the ANNpower Vital Voices initiative came through, the Co-Founders “bought out a Walmart” and packaged up dozens of sanitary products for distribution at 5 a.m. on a Saturday, dropping them off at the St. Andre Bessette Chapel and Northeast Emergency Food Center in Portland, Oregon.

Two years later, almost 16,000 care packages have been distributed to 38 nonprofit partners in 12 states and 9 countries. Currently, there are 34 campus chapters at different universities and high schools around the U.S.

Ted Talk

With a TED talk under her belt and 1,900 volunteers around the world helping to educate women and distribute free care packages to homeless and low-income women and girls, the nonprofit is growing at an exponential rate.

Okamoto, now 18, believes that in order to empower women, we must maximize the potential for development within the human population through education and economic stability. No effort is too small, and she’ll keep hers up this summer while piloting a political policy and correspondence program for the School of Doodle.

As a send-off to the co-founders, a Period Prom was hosted last week to raise awareness and funds for the program, and the girl who was once homeless is now living in her very own place in Los Angeles. In the fall, she’ll be attending Harvard University.

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A Camions of Care film anthology called Period Stories is currently in the works, with the goal of showcasing the lives of women from diverse backgrounds and establishing menstruation as an equalizer across all women.

“It may be easy to write this off as a women’s issue, or it might make you uncomfortable, but it’s seriously time to start talking about periods,” said Okamoto. “By changing the way we talk about menstrual health, we can change the world.”

To start a chapter, join a packing party, or donate, visit Camions of Care’s website.

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