Formerly Homeless Teen Launched Nonprofit to Bring Menstrual Products to Women in Need
Each year, L'Oréal Paris and Points of Light recognize, celebrate and support Women of Worth who make a beautiful difference in their communities. For exceptional commitment to service, 10 honorees each receive a $10,000 grant to support their most cherished cause. One honoree, selected during the open online vote, receives an additional $25,000 grant.
Motivated simply because she saw an unaddressed need, and armed with the optimism and energy of a 16-year-old, Nadya Okamoto started a movement, captivating social agencies in her city of Portland, Oregon. Not only has she changed the way they worked with homeless women and girls, but her cause has also quickly grown to become a nationwide – and global – revolution. Along the way, she has inspired hundreds of students across the United States to join the crusade to ensure homeless and impoverished women have access to feminine hygiene products and to improve awareness of the extent to which women lack access – to deleterious effect.
Okamoto said she, her mother and her sisters were briefly homeless themselves after her mom lost her job. That experience, plus observations of homeless people she encountered on her way to school, made her realize that feminine products were rarely distributed, that women were unable to afford them, and that they were too embarrassed to ask for them. Okamoto decided, “OK, I’m going to do something about it.”
She and a classmate, Vincent Forand, went online, registered as a nonprofit organization, and built a website. Using a $2,500 grant she’d won through the ANNpower Fellowship program for aspiring teen leaders, Okamoto and Forand put together care packages of products and took them to a homeless shelter.
Today, Camions of Care, has gone from delivering 20 care packages a week to 1,500, just in the Portland area. “Camion is another word for truck,” said Okamoto, explaining the name. “It’s all about mobility, about us driving and bringing things to women in need.” The organization has established a network of 2,200 volunteers nationwide, working from chapters established at 35 high schools and colleges. Through its website and Facebook presence, requests for assistance have come from as far as Kenya, Rwanda, and Greece.
“We don’t think about what it’s like not to have menstrual hygiene products,” said Okamoto. But she’s learned that impoverished or homeless women and girls are often forced to do without them, leading to embarrassment, discomfort, and even infections from using toilet paper from public restrooms as a substitute.
Yet no one was talking about the subject, noted Okamoto: “When people are asked to donate to the homeless, the things they think about are clothes, water, canned goods – maybe toothpaste or shampoo, but no feminine products.”
“It was a conversation waiting to happen,” Okamoto said. “Think of how much of a need there is. Half of the population is women. Women menstruate on a monthly basis for 40 years. And think about the growing population of homeless women and girls. Yet, we were the only nonprofit out there that was saying, ‘Periods matter and we should be focusing on this.’”
Okamoto further learned that in developing countries, a lack of hygiene products is the number one reason that girls miss school. Some cultures shun menstruating females for fear of “contamination,” or consider periods as a signal to initiate forced marriages or genital mutilation.
In just under three years, Camions of Care estimates it has successfully addressed more than 25,000 periods and has distributed more than 15,000 care packages through more than 40 nonprofit partners in 17 states and nine countries. The organization has raised more than $55,000, and produced a thought-provoking multimedia series called Period Stories, in which girls and women share personal experiences.
Katie O’Brien, community outreach and development officer for Rose Haven women’s shelter in Portland, said Camions of Care “has been a lifesaver for us – it almost seemed too good to be true.” O’Brien said Okamoto’s agency provides 80 percent of the hygiene products needed by the more than 2,500 women Rose Haven serves each year.
O’Brien noted another key factor: Poor and homeless women are often trying to solve multiple goals, such as finding housing, jobs, or training. Knowing they can count on obtaining hygiene products allows them to concentrate on other things. Likewise, the same holds true for social services agencies trying to address multiple issues. “To have that regular supply coming in allows us to shift our energies into other areas,” O’Brien added.
Okamoto has no qualms about discussing periods and their associated needs. Nor is she shy about asking others to donate products, money, or time. She’s lined up numerous corporate sponsors and established working relationships with homeless shelters and other social service agencies.
“I was doing a speech every week,” she said. “I spoke at other schools, Rotary Clubs, different events, pitch competitions. I was emailing and emailing. I was really pushing the message out there, getting press. Even now I try to get a press release out every week. I was really tired by the end of senior year, but I was really pushing forward.”
She and her partner, Forand, know how to tap into their generation’s skills and way of thinking. Today’s youth are eager to help others, but also to gain volunteer experience that will look good on college applications and resumes, Forand explained.
“What I enjoy doing is logistics and business; it’s something that I’m passionate about in my own way,” he said. “She does the advocacy stuff and I do the on-the-ground work as far as distribution.”
Most of the volunteer drivers for Camions of Care are also young men; Okamoto and Forand easily tapped into the thrill of driving among the newly licensed. And kids of both genders enjoy coming to care-packaging events.
Camions of Care has recruited eight young people as permanent team members, each contributing individual skills in social media, graphic design, and event planning. “For volunteer work, you don’t have to be good at advocating for menstruation,” said Forand. “You can be pretty much anything and find a niche. I think that’s where a lot of our power comes from, is that we can leverage whatever young people have to offer to fit our organization.”
In addition to the ANNpower Fellow grant, Nadya and Camions of Care have received a President’s Volunteer Service Award, the Hasbro Community Action Hero Award, and a Daily Point of Light Award as well as a vast number of other awards recognizing them for their efforts. Okamoto was also recognized as a Lead Activist by the National Youth Leadership Council and received a grant from generationOn, Points of Light’s youth service division, during their Family Volunteer Day campaign in 2015.
Okamoto plans to split grant money from the L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth program between the two Camions of Change program pathways. “One is the global distribution of hygiene products to our partners worldwide,” said Okamoto. “A portion of those funds would go to that. Because of our corporate partnerships, for every dollar donated, we can provide a woman with a month’s worth of products; so $7,000 could help 7,000 women.”
“Our other pathway is expanding our youth leadership program on high school and college campuses,” Okamoto continued. “We hope to engage young people to connect with their political leaders to replicate legislation to get feminine products covered by government assistance programs.”
Despite the fact that her family still lives “well below the poverty line” and she’s poured an estimated 20 hours a week into her cause throughout her junior and senior years, Okamoto kept up her grades and was accepted to Harvard University, where she hopes to study law and political science. She and Forand are determined to continue running Camions of Care from their respective college campuses.
“I’m just so passionate about this,” said Okamoto, who attended this summer’s Democratic National Convention to start learning about political processes. “I know in my heart that the only way we can ensure menstrual hygiene is always covered is if it’s embedded into legislation."