Community, Features

From homelessness to helping women around the world get menstrual care

Harvard student Nadya Okamoto is the founder of Camions of Care, a nonprofit focused on providing feminine hygiene products for women in need. PHOTO COURTESY CALVIN H KWAN
Harvard student Nadya Okamoto is the founder of Camions of Care, a nonprofit focused on providing feminine hygiene products for women in need. PHOTO COURTESY CALVIN H KWAN

When Nadya Okamoto was declared legally homeless at 15 years old, she didn’t sit idly by and wait for her situation to change — she moved forward by helping others.

She talked to low-income-earning women, expecting to hear troubles surrounding a lack of clothing or job stability. Instead, she heard that once a month, these women were unable to manage their periods because of a lack of resources. Okamoto had shared the same shelter walls as these women and watched as the problem hit close to home, and even closer to the heart. She decided to pull a little harder on this global thread between women and create the nonprofit organization Camions of Care.

The goal of Camions of Care is to bring a microphone to the hushed conversations of menstrual hygiene. Instead of associating tampons with taboo, Okamoto hopes to celebrate feminine hygiene through advocacy, youth leadership and service. Thanks to Camions of Care, free packs of feminine hygiene kits are given to low-income individuals. Each pack gets nine tampons, five panty-liners and four maxi pads.

Starting Camions of Care was truly a result of my own experiences of legal homelessness,” said Okamoto, now a freshman at Harvard University.

One weekend, after staying in a shelter alone, Okamoto heard stories of how women had been repeatedly held back by menstrual hygiene issues when they were homeless.

In the past two years, Camions of Care has addressed over 24,000 periods to over 40 nonprofit partners in 17 states and nine countries, Okamoto said. The youth-led facet of the organization, called “The Menstrual Movement,” has grown tremendously, with 36 campus chapters established in the United States. In Massachusetts, there is an established chapter at Simmons College, and chapters in the works at Boston University and Harvard University, Okamoto said. With Okamoto’s leadership, the vision has branched out into something larger.

“We had been best friends for the past two years right around when she pitched the idea to me,” said Vincent Forand, a freshman at Cornell University and the co-founder and operations director of Camions of Care. “It makes sense that the time we started this organization together was when our friendship started because we had a very successful dynamic.”

According to this duo, the conversation has just begun. While Camions of Care primarily helps with the distribution of feminine hygiene products, it recently began educating girls and boys about period management and health risks.

“We are now moving into systemic and social change,” Okamoto said. “We really believe that we’re not just about accessible distribution, [but also about] making it accessible in the long run by creating social change around the conversation about menstruation.”

A recent partnership with Maxim Hygiene Products has allowed Camions of Care to shift its focus to this long-lasting change. The organization donated 324,000 tampons to the nonprofit, the organization said in May.

“The reason this donation is so significant is because now for every dollar that is donated to us, we are able to provide everything a woman needs for an entire menstrual cycle,” Okamoto said. “It’s really exciting.”

Okamoto said she believes that the kits serve a purpose many may not realize — global development. Periods are the No. 1 reason girls in developing countries miss school, barring them from reaching their full potential, according to Okamoto.

“If this need isn’t addressed, women and girls will not be provided with the confidence and dignity that every human deserves to discover and reach their full potential,” Okamoto said in a TedX Talk in Portland, Oregon in November.

As Okamoto once fought through her family’s homelessness, she now fights endlessly for this global issue.

I would describe Nadya as a powerhouse,” said Lynn Hager, the director of community outreach and partnerships at the Portland State University Camions of Care chapter. “She has already made such an impact on her community in such a huge way. I believe we will see her making big changes to public policy in the future, and I am sure that will only be the beginning.”

While some may be surprised to hear that Okamoto is only 18 years old, she said age is what gives Camions of Care the upper hand.

“When it comes to social change, we really believe that it starts with what young minds think of periods,” Okamoto said. “We are changing the narrative about menstruation for the future, and young people are the future. It’s on us.”

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