Like many women and girls throughout the country, Megan Gustafson never had an issue accessing period products, so she never thought much about what someone unable to afford pads or tampons might do. Then last year, while volunteering at the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry with her church, the Story City, Iowa-native encountered a woman asking to take more than the allotted package of period products. The woman had four daughters, and the family often had to decide who would get to use that month’s package, and who would instead have to stay home from school or work. After some research, Megan discovered that one in five girls in the United States can’t afford period products, and one in four miss school because of it.
Believing no girl should have to go through that, Megan started a drive to collect period products to donate to area food pantries and local schools. She collected donations and assembled bags filled with pads, tampons, wipes, chocolate, menstrual cycle information, and for teens, makeup kits as well. So far, she has donated over 7,000 pads and tampons and 45 makeup bags. Aside from wanting to help girls who can’t afford them, she also wanted to make the topic of periods less taboo for all girls and make the experience less scary for girls getting them for the first time.
Aside from her continued collecting of the period products, Megan also volunteers at Loaves and Fishes whenever it is her church’s turn to run the pantry. Every other month or so, she helps pick up food donations and walks visitors through the pantry. She is also Chair of the Promotions Committee for the Story City Greater Chamber Connection, where she helps to plan family-friendly events for her community.
Can you describe your period kit project?
It started last year. Last year’s event, I didn’t really have too high of hopes, honestly, but I was just trying to collect mostly pads and tampons to donate to area food pantries and to local schools. Then from there, we also made some [kits] that are more specifically for teens and I had several people donate different makeup kits. We made these first period packs, which held two or three pads, two or three tampons in a couple different sizes, some information about what was going on with their bodies, a piece of chocolate, and some wipes and different things like that. Those all went to mostly the middle school, [and] we took some to the elementary school and high school, just to make a girl’s first period a little less scary perhaps. Those were available through the school nurse. I think some of them went to teachers as well, teachers who were known throughout the school to be good people to go talk to.
What inspired you to do this?
We have a food pantry [Loaves & Fishes] here in town that’s co-run by all the area churches. The Saturday that my church was in charge, I was volunteering. The food pantry’s policy is for it to be sort of a way to tide you over until next month, as opposed to being a one-stop-shop sort of place. I had this mother come in and I was helping her through the food pantry. We got over to the hygiene product area and she asked if she could have a couple extra packages of pads and tampons, because the packages they gave out typically had maybe 12 to 15 in a pack of either pads or tampons. She said she has four daughters at home and some months they have to take turns on like, “Ok, I guess you’re going to have to miss school during this time,” or “I’ll miss work,” or something along those lines. That was a real eye-opener for me, so I went and did some more research and found one in five girls in our country can’t afford it, and one in four miss classes each school year because they don’t have access. I had no idea that that was happening here.
For someone who may not be aware that period poverty is an issue, can you describe the effect not being able to afford pads and tampons can have on women and girls?
I can’t speak for certain because I’ve never really been in a situation where I’ve never been able to afford them, but I know girls are missing school. Even if they’re only missing three or four days out of the school year because of the lack of access, that’s three or four days of education that they’re missing out on. We don’t really like talking about periods anyway, so I would imagine there’s some shame going into it as well, not being unable to afford these and having to tell friends, “I can’t go to school today because I’m on a period.” No girl should have to say that.
Do you have any longterm plans about continuing to do this or any ideas of where you would like to see this go?
It’s definitely something I want to continue in the future. I’m in school right now to become a pastor and I see this eventually becoming a part of my ministry at a church. In my ideal world, my church would have some sort of, kind of like a food pantry, but it would focus more on things that maybe don’t get as easily donated. I know from volunteering at the food pantry here in Story City, they get plenty of cans of food and pasta and cereal and different staples like that, but when it comes to bathroom products, especially like pads and tampons, that’s something a lot of people don’t think about. I think that’s something I would really like to continue to grow on and expand to a full-fledged ministry.
Can you discuss some of your other volunteer work?
The Chamber of Commerce in my hometown, [called] the Story City Greater Chamber Connection here, I’m the Chair of their Promotions Committee. With that, I do a lot of especially family-friendly events around town. We’re working on one right now that’s going to be a drive-thru barbecue in a couple of weeks. It’s been a weird year to be on it, because a lot of our events had to be cancelled this year. We also do things like the downtown trick-or-treating, a tree lighting around Thanksgiving, just different family-friendly events like that. … They have a duck race every year as part of a fundraiser, where we send a bunch of ducks over the bridge and into the river. For that, I’ve been wearing the duck costume that goes and meets little kids. Sometimes I volunteer in the office helping stuff mailers and different things like that. During the summers, my summer employment is through them, and I work at the Story City antique carousel. The Story City carousel is a merry-go-round that was built in 1913 and families come and take rides, and we do history tours and sometimes we do little parties.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
I know one thing I found really rewarding, especially with the pad and tampon drive, is bringing awareness to it. Even now a year later, I still have people on Facebook who will ask me when’s the next one coming up, or they’ll find an article about [period poverty] and they’ll send it to me. That’s been really cool. Also how, at least some people in town, it seems like are more willing to talk about it, so it’s less of a taboo subject. With volunteering in general, I would say one of the more meaningful experiences has been with the duck races, and my dressing up in the duck costume and having little kids come up to me. They’ll give me drawings of themselves with the duck when they met the duck last year, and they’re just so excited to see them. The look on their faces when they get to see the duck in person again, that’s been a really rewarding experience.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
I think it’s important for others to volunteer because it’s sort of this ‘we’re all in this together’ attitude. Especially volunteering around your local community, it’s your friends, it’s your neighbors, it’s people you pass on the street. If doing something, even taking an hour out of your time, makes someone else’s life that much better, then why not do it?
What do you want people to learn from your story?
I guess one thing that I would say is even if you think it’s kind of a weird thing to be passionate about, it’s still something that you are passionate about, and it’s something that you should really take and run with because you never know where it will end up.
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