Imagine that first you can’t afford to keep your water on, or your electricity. You’re already struggling to find or keep a job.
Every month, you have menstrual periods. One or more of your children might, too.
Where do you find room for sanitary pads and tampons in the budget? How do you focus on taking care of yourself, getting a new job or a more stable home? If you’re homeless, how do you find a way to get hygiene products without money?
That’s what Donna Kaucic started wondering as she worked with families at Jefferson Franklin Community Action Corporation, a non-profit agency that offers services to address poverty in Jefferson and Franklin counties.
So Kaucic started what became the Secret Challenge, a grassroots effort to collect sanitary pads and tampons, then donate them to local shelters and food pantries in Jefferson and Franklin counties.
When Kaucic sent out a survey, 12 percent of women who responded in her area said they had skipped work or school because they didn’t have the right hygiene products. Others found creative, and potentially dangerous, solutions to their hygiene problem.
“It’s still embarrassing to go through something so private and intimate and try to ask for help for that. So they just try to use other things,” said Kaucic, who named her initiative for the way people think of menstruation as a subject people don’t discuss openly. “Nobody wants to say, ‘I don’t have a pad today.’”
One woman told Kaucic that she cuts up jeans to use as pads. Kaucic has heard of people making their own tampons by twisting pads, or using materials like paper towels, rags, socks or newspaper in place of pads. Others put off changing their tampons because they didn’t have replacements. That can increase risk of toxic shock syndrome, a life-threatening condition caused by bacteria.
“If you have a family of four or five, you can’t say, ‘Well, we’re not doing it this month. We don’t have it in the budget.’ It’s coming whether you want it to or not is the problem,” Kaucic said. “If they don’t have running water and electricity, they’re not buying [pads or tampons].”
The Secret Challenge formally began last March when Kaucic wrote a paper on the issue for a social work course she was taking at Jefferson College, where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree. But she wanted to get hands-on. So she started collecting cash donations and hygiene products.
Then she hosted the “Crampy Crawl 5K,” which raised about $800 to donate pads and tampons to Ozark Food Pantry in Festus.
Pads and tampons are an important form of support for homeless people, said Kelly Peach, senior director of communication for St. Patrick Center.
St. Patrick Center has homeless outreach programs primarily in St. Louis and St. Louis County, as well as support services for families of military veterans in Franklin, Jefferson and five other counties; it also operates a men’s shelter for St. Louis. For its work, Peach said, the center most needs pads and tampons, as well as underwear and sports bras.
“If you have them, you don’t think about it,” she said. “If you don’t have them, you’re in trouble.”
Though single men are most often counted in homeless shelters and transitional housing, a significant portion of homeless people tend to be women with families, according to a statewide homelessness study from the University of Missouri – St. Louis Public Policy Research Center. Some transgender men are also homeless and can’t afford the hormone treatments that prevent menstruation.
In Peach’s experience, women’s groups and Girl Scout troops most often deliver. Like Kaucic, Peach has heard stories of people who struggle to get hygiene products for menstruation — people who try to get what they need from nurses at emergency rooms and hospitals.
Even so, pads and tampons can be rare donations.
“We’ll get, you know, shampoo and conditioner, and shaving cream, and soap, and toothbrushes and things like that. But you do tend to notice from time to time that the feminine supplies are not necessarily coming in,” Peach said.
Peach said she’s not sure why that is. But Kaucic has a theory: People just don’t want to talk about menstruation.
“It’s just such a taboo subject,” Kaucic said. “And today, 2018, it’s still as taboo as it was in the '60s, or the '40s, or the '30s. And it drives me nuts.”
To Kaucic, that’s part of a larger problem that doesn’t have anything to do with poverty or homelessness. Many respondents to Kaucic’s survey said that they weren’t prepared for their periods, that either no one told them beforehand or that they never heard a clear explanation. And to her, the Secret Challenge isn’t just about addressing an immediate, physical need.
“It’s psychological,” said Kaucic. “If you have a hygiene problem and you can’t get the proper things to take care of yourself, how are you gonna take care of your mind, take care of your kids, take care of your neighbors, your community?”
This spring, Kaucic is planning a trivia night to raise more money towards the Secret Challenge’s pad and tampon donations.
Follow Kae on Twitter: @kmaepetrin