Lessons from the Ve'ahavta Van: How equal access to hygiene products is indeed a homelessness reduction tactic
When we think of people experiencing homelessness and the challenges they face, the most pressing concerns that come to mind are often around basic human needs: Where does someone sleep? How does a person access food? How do they keep warm?
Through The Period Purse's relationship with Ve'ahavta's Mobile Jewish Response to Homelessness (MJRH) Van, I've developed a greater understanding of the challenges that marginalized women and trans folks face.
On evenings in the Ve'ahavta van, other volunteers, a social worker and I embark on a journey through Toronto to hand out food, coffee, clothing and company to individuals living in poverty. It is on these shifts that the challenges of gender-based oppression become more evident.
Cis women, gender non-conforming people and trans people who experience homelessness are often at a higher risk of having faced abuse, mistreatment and trauma. In my work with Ve'ahavta, for example, I've noticed there have been a surplus of shifts where women requesting resources from the van often prefer to receive support from volunteers who are also women. Connecting with someone of a similar identity may reassure the person they are in a safe place, where they can positively and easily access the hygiene products they need, without risk or harm.
People experiencing homelessness are likely to also face the same stigmas and pressures that many of us experience in day-to-day life. These issues are further amplified, however, on the margins.
Many marginalized menstruators may feel shame around their periods, and this could stem from not having the means to experience a healthy and dignified menstrual cycle, as defined by them. They may also be nervous to ask for help and access to products, made available through The Period Purse and Ve'ahavta.
With that said, however, the purses and packs curated and donated by The Period Purse are especially helpful when someone accessing the van feels shy or uncomfortable requesting the menstrual items they need. The Period Purse will give these menstruators a discreet bag, full of items that will ensure their next period is cleaner, healthier and more positive. And the folks we meet on Ve'ahavta rides always express joy when they receive their purse, a new item they can all their own.
I've also learned that women experiencing homelessness may feel intense pressure to look or dress a certain way. The women we meet on the van are often apologizing for their appearance, apprehensive about making human connection and worried they are not presentable enough for a conversation.
I now often think about how our expectations around what women should look like further stigmatize those experiencing homelessness, something I hadn't considered before my volunteer experiences with The Period Purse and Ve'ahavta.
As we continue to think about the complexities of poverty and homelessness, and as we work towards possible solutions, we have to remember the unique needs that marginalized menstruators have and the specific challenges that they face. A "one size fits all" solution to reducing poverty doesn't cut it.
People of marginalized genders who are experiencing homelessness need a more specialized support strategy in order to overcome the obstacles keeping them in poverty. They need personalized connections and equal access to resources, as these positive experiences will not only improve health and wellness, but also lead to developed self-confidence and self-acceptance.
Committed to supporting long-term advancements, I am thankful that organizations like The Period Purse and Ve'ahavta are available to provide direct, unique support to those who need it the most. I'm also humbled by the opportunities I've had to widen my perspective on homelessness and am empowered to share my lessons through this platform.
Readers, if you are interested in supporting the cause, please donate today and sign up to volunteer. If you have questions about how to join an upcoming Ve'ahavta ride, select "Ve'ahavta Saturday Night Outreach," in our volunteer sign up form.
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The windows are down; the sun is shining; the music is blaring; and the dark grey SUV is cruising around the city of Toronto. Is it a best friends' day out? Some pals going for a beer? A family spending quality time? It could be, but the car is packed to the brim with tampons, pads and wellness kits destined for shelters around the community.
Photo Credit: Micah Rodrigues
A car full of period packs ready for delivery.
This is the aftermath of a Blitz!
The Period Purse hosts bi-annual Blitzes every year, which means each spring and fall, we put out a call to action to all menstrual health and equity advocates, encouraging them to drop off bags, purses, menstrual products and other wellness items to a range of locations in their neighbourhood. At the end of the collection period, we gather for a packing party, where we sort, pack and then deliver the donations, purses and refill packs to impoverished menstruators.
It's no doubt that a Blitz is a large undertaking, routinely lead by a group of volunteers with other full-time commitments, but it's also one of the most rewarding experiences of being a core supporter.
The sheer generosity we witness is overwhelming! For example, the bins at our Toronto West and East locations fill up daily, and over 60 volunteers attend our Saturday night packing parties, stuffing take-away packs and purses for menstruators experiencing homelessness.
Photo Credit: Megan Scott
Dozens of period purses that will be given to marginalized menstruators.
Over the last two years, schools and for-profit companies have rallied their groups to collect products; engaged couples and parents-to-be request donations in lieu of gifts; and venues host tampon/pad admission nights, like Tampon Tuesday, where a period product serves as a guest's ticket. Plus, I mustn't forget the drivers who come from all over to help distribute the donations and packs we cultivate.
Photo Credit: Megan Scott
Two volunteers pose with the purses ready for donation.
During The Period Purse's 2018 Fall Blitz across Toronto, we packed over 700 purses and bags. As a direct result of our combined efforts, 700 marginalized menstruators in Canada's most diverse city were able to experience dignified, healthy periods, as defined by them. This means 700 women, trans men and non-binary folks were given equal access to period products. This means that people experiencing homelessness were shown they are worthy of care, support, wellness and health.
From an education perspective, Blitzes mean that over 60 people learn about period poverty, why it is an issue and how they can help.
Blitzes also give volunteers of every age, gender and background the opportunity to acquire knowledge, and share that knowledge with the diverse folks around them. It means that the kids and young adults who participate have become the next generation of period positive activists.
Photo Credit: Micah Rodrigues
A young volunteer with a trunk of supplies for The Period Purse.
Throughout the Toronto Spring Blitz, which runs from April 5 to 26, 2019, The Period Purse is collecting the following items:
- Tampons, pads and menstrual cups
- Cloth pads and washcloths
- Large purses, bags, totes and backpacks
- New socks and underwear
- Bar soap
- Hats, scarves and gloves
- Chocolate and granola bars
Drop-off locations in Toronto East are:
- Mina Drug Store, 1474 Kingston Rd.
- Sprouts Kids,183 Carlaw Ave.
- Origin Wellness, 2017 Danforth Ave.
- Oma Chiropractic & Wellness, 1 Munro St.
- Might & Main Cafe, 126 Main St.
Drop-off locations in Toronto West are:
- Working Ensemble, 128 Lansdowne Ave.
- The Big Guy's Little Coffee Shop, 2861 Lakeshore Blvd. W.
- Arif Virani's Constituency Office, MP for Parkdale - High Park, 1596 Bloor St. W.
- More locations will be identified soon!
Should questions arise or if you'd like to support in a greater capacity, please reach out to me directly at email@example.com.
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Marching Towards Change and Investing in Opportunities for Inclusive Representation and Equity: Important Days and Action Items in March 2019
With the warmer, steadier, temperatures hopefully on the horizon, our collective thoughts are turning to spring in anticipation of the refreshing sense of renewal around the corner. As we focus on the possibilities of change and growth ahead, March is the perfect time to also think about and embrace initiatives that put representation and inclusion at the forefront.
Spring brings with it ambition and exploration. And with ambition and exploration, come desires for acquired knowledge and awareness. Leading up to numerous of March's important initiatives, The Period Purse is empowered by the opportunity to share news about three upcoming awareness days: Zero Discrimination Day, International Women's Day and the International Transgender Day of Visibility.
Zero Discrimination Day:
Commemorated worldwide on March 1, Zero Discrimination Day works to promote complete equality before the law and in practice, for all countries that are also members of the United Nations.
Started by UNAIDS, an organization leading the global effort to end AIDS, in February 2014 with a kickoff event in Beijing, CN, and honoured for the first time the following month that year, Zero Discrimination Day is now marked by rallies, effective programming and social media campaigns.
Zero Discrimination Day aims to propel global discussions about all forms of discrimination, as well as possible solutions for countries and companies to enforce, so to better increase positive, inclusive experiences in diverse groups. The 2019 theme for Zero Discrimination Day is Act to Change, a phrase that centres around changing the laws that inherently cause discrimination.
International Women's Day:
International Women's Day has taken place every year on March 8 since 1911. The initiative recognizes the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women-identifying people, while also making a call to action to accelerate gender parity and increase gender balance, worldwide.
The 2019 International Women's Day theme is Balance for Better, a phrase that aims to highlight the need for gender balance and gender equity in all environments. A quick search on event hubs like Eventbrite will show just how many opportunities there are to join communities and leaders in sparking change and increasing gender equity this International Women's Day.
Readers are encouraged to host their own International Women's Day event leading up to or on March 8. Review the official event resource and learn more about branded swag and décor. For more, follow the official International Women's Day pages on Facebook and Instagram.
International Transgender Day of Visibility:
Acknowledged annually on March 31, the International Transgender Day of Visibility celebrates the accomplishments and victories of transgender and gender non-conforming people, while also raising critical understanding and providing education about the work still to do, in order to save lives.
Rachel Crandall, head of Transgender Michigan, an advocacy group in the aforementioned American state, realized that there had been no day of "celebration" for the trans and gender non-conforming communities. After first asking, "Why?" Crandall changed their stance to, "Why not me?" and led the inaugural International Transgender Day of Visibility in 2009.
Now championed by youth group Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER), the 2019 celebration theme is Surviving and Thriving.
Readers, as you explore the learnings and leadership opportunities that March has to offer, share your Zero Discrimination Day, International Women's Day and International Transgender Day of Visibility experiences with us.
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Photo Credit: Danielle Kaftarian
Danielle Kaftarian drives her car filled with period products for marginalized menstruators.
I met Jana Girdauskas, the founder of The Period Purse, nine years ago. Quickly I discovered her drive to spread kindness to others. It wasn't uncommon for her to leave little things on your doorstep if she knew you were having a bad week or a surprise craft to distract the kids when they were stuck at home during bad weather.
So when I saw her Facebook post asking for just ONE purse to hold period products for marginalized menstruators, it wasn't a surprise to me that she was putting together something; yet there I was, in shock. This felt different. I kept telling Jana, "This is big! This is going to be really, really big!"
In those early days, most of the volunteers started out as her close friends. We all pitched in when we had some availability. We had to help Jana now that she needed us. This was our way to return kindness. I was in shock that in less than a week, she had 11 purses.
Then the media picked up on this idea, and she was doing interviews with CBC, CityTV, newspapers, you name it. As a result, more donations were coming in, and before we knew it, a full donation drive was underway. We decided packing parties would be best to handle the sorting of donations and assembling of all the purses.
At the first packing party, we had a plan of how things were going to go. We had a rough idea of how much we had to sort and pack because we had collected it from the drive; we had a rough idea of how many people were going to come and help out because we had invited them.
What we didn't expect is that extra people came and everyone brought additional donations that they had collected. Very early into the event, we knew we had to change the set-up and packing processes. Everyone worked together to brainstorm ways to make them more efficient.
Before we all knew it, in a few short hours, we packed around 300 purses. There it was; Jana had accidentally started an incredible movement that would change the lives of so many.
Photo Credit: Danielle Kaftarian
Danielle Kaftarian's children supporting The Period Purse, celebrating after stuffing packs with products.
That ONE purse has turned into more than 16,000 periods supported in two years. Yet I don't see that as our biggest accomplishment. I see our biggest accomplishment as our ability to educate and effect change in how menstrual health is viewed and treated in our communities.
We have been given this great platform to openly share the knowledge that we are gaining along the way, such as ensuring that we use inclusive language when speaking about menstruation. In the early days, we used the common term, "feminine hygiene products." It's now been changed to, "menstrual products" to be more inclusive.
We also addressed the stigma surrounding discussing periods in general by partnering with Tait Gamble for Menstruation Nation, which educates students across Ontario about period health. And this year, The Period Purse is also looking to focus on supporting Indigenous communities through fundraising for reusable menstrual products.
Challenging individuals to take a moment and think about some of these issues around menstrual health is what is going to spark change. The Period Purse was even highlighted recently in a speech by Arif Virani, Ontario MP, in the House of Commons, which illustrates the progress we've made in discussing menstruation and menstrual equity.
I'm still in awe of how big this has grown in just two years, and I am beyond excited to see what happens in two more. I know I have learned and grown in my own confidence with talking about menstrual health; it's allowed me to teach my kids about kindness and charity; it's allowed me to feel like we can really make an impact in this one aspect of others' lives. I'm so honoured to be a part of this movement.
Now it's time to continue these important conversations and keep working towards menstrual equity. We encourage our supporters to reach out and join the conversation. Follow us on social media (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook), and talk to your local politicians to spark change in your own communities. Like I imagined two years ago, it could lead to something big.
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Diverse Community Ambassadors Increase Inclusive Community Impact: Introducing Cristina Navoa and Marissa Catena
In other words, we're thrilled that there are people across this country who echo us when we say: "Half of the world bleeds. Deal with it and help us source free product for menstruators."
In the early fall of 2018, we launched our first-ever community ambassador program. It brings like-minded people together through strategic communication and social media efforts. We recognize that digital media is both flourishing and ever-changing. We too acknowledge that without the power of sharing stories, highlighting impact and connecting with folks from various communities who represent diverse audiences, we wouldn't be able to support marginalized menstruators across Ontario and Saskatchewan.
It is so incredibly important to us to ensure that we put representation at the forefront of everything we do, and since our community ambassador program opened, two passionate advocates, each with empowering social media brands, have helped us connect with new people, while supporting everything for which we stand.
We asked Cristina Navoa, Teacher and Lifestyle Ambassador, and Marissa Catena, Toronto mom of three, business owner, avid reader, coffee enthusiast and former knitter, why they are dedicated to supporting The Period Purse. This is what they had to say:
When my friend, Vanessa Grant, Founder of Vanessa Grant Media and Mommyfluencer.com, connected me with Jana Girdauskas and The Period Purse, I realized I had never thought about menstrual equity or that menstrual inequity existed. I thought about how my period affects me month to month; how on some days, I have found myself in predicaments without pads or tampons. I thought about times I stayed in bed with particularly bad menstrual discomfort. Then, I thought about other menstruators who do not have the resources I do; how running to the store to buy some pain medication or an extra pack of pads are not options when there are other priorities at the top of the list, like nutrition and shelter. This put things into perspective for me and I knew I wanted to be involved.
Photo Credit: Jenny Diaz Photography
In early 2017, there was a call out on a neighbourhood Facebook group with the ask to collect purses and menstrual supplies and donate them to a person experiencing homelessness. Until that day, I'd never stopped to consider the challenges a marginalized menstruator might face during their period. Learning that socks, toilet paper and newspaper are often used in lieu of sanitary products was eye-opening. Knowing the impact that one purse has on someone's life has made me a proud contributor to The Period Purse's, "Support a Menstruator," program. Each month, my donation empowers a menstruator by ensuring they have the supplies they need to handle their period, with dignity. The Period Purse has done so much in such a short time and I'm excited to see what 2019 brings!
We are incredibly grateful for Cristina and Marissa's support and encourage you to follow along with their journeys via Instagram.
Are you interested in supporting The Period Purse as one of our community ambassadors? Send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. In your email, please include a one to three sentence biography, your social media handles and any other web details you wish to share.
Thanks for building and supporting this diverse community with us. We can't make inclusive community impact without you!
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