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This 18-Year-Old Is Distributing Period Products To Homeless Women

"Our job is done when menstrual hygiene is a right, not a privilege."

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This is Nadya Okamoto, an 18-year-old freshman at Harvard University who founded Camions of Care, a nonprofit that distributes menstrual hygiene products to homeless women.

Courtesy of Nadya Okamoto

"So far we've distributed thousands of menstrual hygiene care packages filled with tampons and pads to homeless women in shelters or on the streets," Okamoto told BuzzFeed Health.

How does she do it? Her nonprofit works with over 40 local chapters at high schools and colleges, collecting donated menstrual products and raising funds to send them to women all over the United States and several countries abroad.

Okamoto is no stranger to homelessness. At age 15, she and her sisters spent seven months homeless and couch surfing after her mother lost her job.

"I grew up in New York City until I was 9, when my parents divorced and my mom moved my sisters and I to Portland, Oregon," Okamoto said. Life was pretty normal until the spring of Okamoto's sophomore year of high school, when her mother lost her job and could no longer pay for their home. So for seven months, her family was declared legally homeless, staying with friends or living in temporary housing.

"Even though we always managed to have a roof over our heads, I felt the depression and anxiety over my living situation, especially because I had to keep up at school like a regular teen," she said.

Paying for pads and tampons was the last thing she wanted to worry about, but Okamoto said her period still caused her to skip gym class or days of school because she wasn't prepared.

During her two-hour commute to high school, Okamoto met other homeless women in Portland who told her they had no access to menstrual products and used old paper bags, cloth, or newspaper from the trash instead.

Cinty Ionescu / Via Flickr: energeticspell

When your main concern is finding a safe place to sleep, a meal, or warm clothing, many women are forced to do whatever is cheapest or most convenient to deal with their period.

The consequences of poor menstrual hygiene include bacterial vaginitis, urinary tract infections, and the potentially fatal toxic shock syndrome.

Although there's a high need for tampons and pads among homeless women, many shelters don't supply them.

Olvas / Getty Images / Via thinkstockphotos.com

"First of all, these women are even afraid to talk about their periods, let alone advocate for themselves and ask the shelters for menstrual products, because there's such a stigma," said Okamoto.

Because many women are too embarrassed to ask for menstrual products, Okamoto said there is a lack of demonstrated need for shelters or nonprofits to direct funding and resources to it. As a result, many of them simply don't have a structured, sustainable program to provide pads and tampons like they do for food or clothing.

"The whole thing is a vicious supply-demand cycle which prevents homeless women from getting the menstrual hygiene products they so desperately need," Okamoto said.

"I realized a simple act like giving away menstrual products and showing women we care about their periods could do so much, and that motivated me to start this organization,” Okamoto said.

Camions of Care / Via Facebook: camionsofcare

"I couldn't sleep thinking about what these women had to go through and how there was no organizations dedicated specifically to improving their menstrual hygiene," she said.

So after Okamoto's family regained financial stability and moved back into their home, she founded Camions of Care. "It's a youth-driven nonprofit that strives to manage and celebrate menstrual hygiene through advocacy, education, and research," she said.

Okamoto recalled the second time she delivered care packages at a local homeless shelter, when one woman started crying because she was so shocked that anyone cared about her period. "That moment still makes me cry, too, because I realize how important this truly is to women," Okamoto said.

Camions of Care makes packages with enough tampons and pads for one period, and the organization partners with local shelters to distribute them to women.

Camions of Care / Via Facebook: camionsofcare

One package comes with nine tampons, five panty liners, and four maxi pads. It costs Camions of Care just $1 to make it, due to generous donations, Okamoto said. The group holds events and drives to pack up the products in "care packages" that are given to women.

Previously, Okamoto was delivering the packages herself to shelters or women on the streets in Portland. In order to reach women on a wider geographic scale, Okamoto and the 40 Camions of Care chapters send packages to shelters and nonprofits in cities around the country who distribute them individually.

In the past two years, Okamoto said the nonprofit has provided for over 25,000 periods in 17 states and nine countries.

Camions of Care / Via Facebook: camionsofcare

"Each package can address a woman's need for her entire period," said Okamoto. They also try to provide more sustainable products like menstrual cups or reusable pads to women in transitional housing who have access to clean bathrooms.

The demand for these menstrual hygiene packages has grown so much that Okamoto said she has actually had to turn down some shelters, but she hopes that is only temporary.

Okamoto hopes to expand Camions of Care to break the period stigma and make menstrual hygiene more accessible all over the world.

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"We currently distribute about 1,500 packages each month, and we're working to build up our donor network and monetary resources so we can increase that number," she said.

Another goal is to do more research and collect data on the menstrual hygiene of homeless women in the United States so that the nonprofit can identity need and impact.

"Our job is done when menstrual hygiene is a right, not a privilege," Okamoto said.

Okamoto was recently named a 2016 L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Honoree for her work with Camions of Care, and is now in the running to be a National Honoree and win an additional $25,000 for her cause.

She said she hopes to win and use these funds to reach homeless women in all 50 states and even more countries in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia.

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