Unconditional Soup

I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to convince people to give my little organization, Time of the Month Club, money to buy homeless women tampons and pads which, once used, will be heaved into some landfill along with disposable diapers and other unpleasant detritus of lives lived in the city.

If one subscribes to the notion that teaching a man (or woman) to fish is superior to giving them fish, then I ought to be doing something more substantial, more enduring that handing somebody a freezer bag of 20 tampons which will be used and tossed in a week’s time. Next month the same woman will need 20 more and the month after that and the month after that. It’s endless.

It’s the challenge that food pantries and meal programs face. The same people come in week after week, nothing really changes. Your good soup served up doesn’t change the reality of poverty. It’s just soup, not an elixir. It functions only in the moment and doesn’t build anything, lead anyone anywhere, teach them how not be a person needing soup. It is just soup.

Frustrated by the limitations of soup, some do-gooders decide to make receipt of their soup conditional, as in, I will give you soup if you come to this employment workshop or I will give you soup if you sign up for food stamps (presumably so you will not longer need donated soup). The conditions are intended to generate progress, a changed, improved state in which one is no longer dependent on the generosity of do-gooders to get by. And that is a good thing, I guess.

But it puts me, the do-gooder, in the driver’s seat of a car I don’t own.

It’s not up to me to hold tampons and pads – or soup if I peddled soup – hostage, pending someone’s compliance with what I think they ought to do with their lives. It’s also not up to me to judge anyone, to decide that some people are more worthy of my precious tampons and pads than others. The parameters around what I do through my wee organization are very tightly drawn. I give homeless women tampons and pads and walk away.

They don’t owe me anything. You see, I’m not giving people menstrual supplies in order to changes their lives. I’m doing it because the thought of women having to scrounge up toilet paper or paper towels or socks to deal with their periods is awful, just on its own, not as a symptom of anything else. The lack of menstrual supplies readily lends itself to a systemic analysis of gender bias and ten thousand other terrible, cosmic things but I don’t think about that. I just think about some poor girl stuck in a stall in a public bathroom with no clue how she’s going to pull herself together and walk out into the world. There’s no ambitious change envisioned by helping her with tampons and pads. The goal is just to help her get out of the stall with her pants and dignity intact.

So once I’ve delivered menstrual supplies and they’re received, the transaction is complete. No one owes anyone anything. No one has a hold over anyone else. Everyone is free to make their next move in the world. I like that way of thinking an awful lot. It feels like respect to me, like what I would want if I was stuck in a bathroom stall or needed a bowl of soup.

99 New: Equal Wipes

You don’t have to pay for toilet paper in a public restroom.

There isn’t a coin slot waiting for your quarter so you can get five squares of toilet paper. Sitting in the private comfort of your stall, you could pull off the entire roll and stash it in your purse, leaving nothing for the next person. The toilet paper is there for you to do whatever you want with it. It’s a perk of peeing in a public place. No questions asked.

But tampons and pads? That’s a different matter. The premise might be the same – that there are bodily fluids that need mopping up – but the response is different. If a menstruating woman is lucky, there will be a working tampon/pad machine in the bathroom she is using. So then if she is caught by surprise or has run out of supplies, she can buy a tampon or pad.

Earlier this summer, I got into it with the manager of a large public facility after I complained about the tampon/pad machine in the women’s restroom wearing the same tattered “Out of Service” sign for weeks on end.

Me: This is a problem. Half of your guests are women. They deserve better service.

Him: They vandalize the machine. They can go to First Aid if they need supplies.

Me: Men don’t have to go to First Aid to get toilet paper.

Him: We tried putting out a basket with free supplies but people took too many.

Me: Do you monitor how much toilet paper men use? I bet when they get really drunk, they use a lot and stop up the toilet with it. But just guessing.

Him: It’s a different situation.

Me: Really? Urinating, defecating, menstruating – they’re all basic bodily functions. 

I have to say that the machine was finally fixed and it was fully stocked for several weeks but last night there was another “Out of Service” sign taped on the front, directing women to the First Aid station. After I complained, I got an email from the “Guest Services Manager.” Sure enough, the machine had been vandalized again, whatever that means. Was a woman trying to get her quarter back when it didn’t work, was she banging the thing with her shoe to get a tampon to drop down, did she, like my daughter once did, put her hand up the slot and get stuck? We don’t know. Vandalized. It’s really hard for me to imagine women attending an event in this facility vandalizing a tampon/pad machine while other women walked around her to check their make-up.

Why do we put up with this? Why aren’t tampons and pads freely available in women’s restrooms? Why aren’t they considered basic hygiene necessities like toilet paper? Why do we spend our valuable time and money at a place that tells us to go to the First Aid station if we need a tampon or pad? I’d be fine with that if every man was told to head for First Aid every time he needs to wipe his ass. For heaven’s sake. This needs to change.


7 Steps to Organizing a Menstrual Supplies Drive for Homeless Women

Women who are homeless suffer a lot of indignities. One of them is being without tampons and pads when their periods occur. Put yourself in their place. How would you feel?

Homeless shelters do a tremendous job of providing a safe place to sleep and a warm meal but they often have to rely on what is donated to them. Funding sources don’t generally include a tampon and pad line item. And frankly, it just doesn’t occur to most people to donate menstrual supplies. Who wants to drive up to a shelter with a bag full of tampons when winter coats and mittens seem so much more essential?

If you’re somebody who thinks it’s important to help homeless women keep their dignity by having access to clean, safe menstrual supplies, then you should think about doing a tampon and pad donation drive in your town. Here’s my quick guidebook:

1. Talk to your local women’s shelter first. Connect with the executive director or volunteer coordinator and tell them what you want to do. This is important because when you solicit donations, you will want to say where the donations will be going. So having a shelter on board, basically saying that you can use their name in your asks, is essential. This gave donors confidence that their contribution would end up in the right place.

2. Give your effort a name and a look. I used “Time of the Month Club” for my campaign and asked a friend who is a graphic artist to give the Club a ‘look’. You can use anything but it needs to be smart and snappy. Jan’s Tampon Drive doesn’t do it. Time of the Month Club has some personality (it’s also copyrighted so you’ll have to find another name). You want that because you will be wearing out the airwaves with your pitches. See #3.

3. Fire up the social media engine. Before you do anything, you need to have a decent number of Facebook friends or other social media followers. If you’re a little weak on that front, partner with one or two other people who have a lot of followers. Then in terms of social media strategy: first, I messaged every female Facebook friend who I thought would possibly donate or organize a donation drive at her office. Second, I posted Facebook updates about the drive, not just asking people for donations but posting pictures of anyone who donated and tagging them to make sure the photo had the widest possible circulation.

4. Encourage group giving. One inspired person can inspire others if she thinks of it, like, ‘hey, wait, instead of just buying a couple of boxes of pads, I could get everybody in the office to buy a couple and then we’d have a big bag to donate!’ Talk to your friends and colleagues about hosting a drive at their place of work, church, or club. I bring them a box and flyers to help in their outreach. Promising to come back and pick up the box is key, though, so be prepared for some heavy lifting!

5. Make it easy to donate. I offered to drive anywhere to pick up a donation. I also had a box on my front porch labeled Time of the Month Club where people could leave donations night or day. Some people wanted to take their donations directly to the shelter. That’s fine but I encouraged people to bring them to me so I could keep a count, bag up donations in consistent amounts, and drop them off gradually so as not to swamp the shelter.

6. Thank donors A LOT. I thanked donors and am still trying to come up with ways to thank them. I’m not done yet on that front. I thanked them in person, via email, and on Facebook. Facebook was huge because it had the effect of reminding people of the donation drive but with a new face. Every time someone handed me a bag or a box, I’d ask to take their picture and ask if it was okay for me to post it. Most people said yes when I told them that other people would be inspired by seeing that they had donated.

7. Keep track. Time of the Month Club collects close to 50,000 tampons and pads over the course of a year. That’s a lot of misery and embarrassment avoided. In addition to keeping count, write down who donated, especially those who organized mini drives at their offices, book clubs or among their friends. This will be useful information if you decide to do a second drive.

Time of the Month Club is really about sisterhood. Maybe we haven’t all shared the experience of homelessness, but we have shared this: We are women. We menstruate. It needs to be dealt with in a way that allows us to carry on with life. If our homeless sisters don’t have what they need, those of us who are housed can ante up. It’s that simple really.

If you decide to do a drive, let me know. If you have questions, ask me. You can reach me via email at jwilberg2000@gmail.com.

Go forth. Collect. Have fun.