When Kellee Schleicher arrived home from work, what she saw on her porch made her burst into happiness.
Piles of boxes filled with tampons, pads and menstrual discs had been delivered to her house, all addressed to “Providing Dignity, Period” — a community aid organization that then, back in June of 2020, was just five months old.
Since then, Schleicher has also been collecting other hygiene products, including hand sanitizer, toothbrushes and toothpaste. She spends most weeknights putting the products in care packages, sometimes with Tilly, her chihuahua and French bulldog mix, by her side. On Fridays, she drops the donations in different spots in Westminster, destined for those who are not able to afford it.
“It’s just about dignity,” Schleicher, 28, said.
Period poverty is not just the inability to afford menstrual products. It’s a public health issue that signals lack of resources and access to basic necessities. And those who live under the federal poverty line and may be experiencing homelessness are more likely to struggle with affording period supplies.
“For years and years, women, girls and people who menstruate have just suffered in silence,” Jennifer Gaines, who is the program director at Alliance for Period Supplies, said.
According to the U.S. Census, about 5.2% of Carroll countians live in poverty, with Latinx and Black people making up the highest share of poverty rate. Almost 15% of Latinx people live below the poverty level, while making up 3.9% of the population. Black people stand not too far behind, with 12.1% in poverty.
Black and Latinx women struggle to fit period products in their tight budget, according to a survey by Alliance for Period Supplies and Kotex.
COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it triggered also made it more difficult for individuals to access menstrual products.
In 2018, three out of 10 respondents of a survey of 1,024 people said they have dealt with period poverty at some point in their lives. In 2021, that number increased to four out of 10.
Period poverty carries a double burden. There’s stigma around general poverty, about not having enough money for resources and needing assistance. But there’s also the taboo around menstruation, which shuts the conversation down.
Deanna Bridge-Najera, a physician assistant and the lead clinician for Carroll County Health Department’s reproductive health program, says that the unconscious bias surrounding periods not only prevents people from seeking help, but also means many don’t even realize that there’s an issue.
For example, neither Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) nor the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provide menstrual products. They are not identified as basic necessities, Gaines said.
While the county clinic does not provide menstrual products at a large capacity, Bridge-Najera says it does provide birth control, STI testing, pregnancy test and other services. She said that if the department hears about a need in the community for period products, they will address it.
“We are always looking to adapt to what our community needs are,” Bridge-Najera said.
Tackling period poverty partially means providing menstrual products in bathrooms. Alliance for Period Supplies have pushed for legislation similar to a Maryland bill that passed in April. The “Provision of Menstrual Hygiene Products,” which took effect July 1, requires public schools to provide period products in every dispenser in women’s restrooms at the school.
It’s a partial victory, Gaines said. One in four teens in the United States have missed class due to lack of access to period supplies, and 38% of people who menstruate have said they have missed daily activities, according to Alliance for Period Supplies.
But the bill does not help those who don’t have access to women’s bathroom, like trans men and non-binary people.
“The product should be available in every bathroom,” Gaines said.
Schleicher echoes Gaines when it comes to the transgender community. The resources offered by her organization are for everyone, she said. She wants transgender people to feel comfortable taking supplies from the boxes.
Del. Heather Bagnall, from Anne Arundel County, sponsored a bill to require local health departments and community action agencies to make menstrual products available for free. The bill, which was introduced in January, did not have a second reading.
For the past five and a half years, Schleicher worked with families who were at risk of losing their children as a social worker for the county. She said she has seen holes in social services, especially when it comes to products like period supplies.
“We have so much out there for the homeless community and population,” she said. “But at the same time, I feel like those concrete material needs that they have ... get forgotten about.”
The donation boxes are located at the Human Services Program of Carroll County’s Community Action Agency and by the Westminster Little Free Food Pantry, near the parking lot of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ.
The donation box at Human Services Program of Carroll County benefits people going through Carroll County’s Community Action Agency, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating poverty. Jennifer Graybill, the organization’s director of shelter, housing, and economic mobility, says the agency acts as an entry point for homeless services in the county, providing eviction prevention services and managing homeless shelters and housing programs.
“Period poverty is a new concept for Carroll County, something that we really haven’t talked about or brought attention to,” Graybill said. “To highlight any of the needs of our participants is so important.”
The other donation box by the Westminster Little Free Food Pantry comes out of partnership with Coalition Against Prejudice, a mutual aid and community-based activist group in the county. Besides the hygiene products, the pantry has non-perishable food items and fresh produce.
Now, Schleicher is looking to increase access to her service and do outreach with groups like Girls Scouts, where she can talk to young women about period poverty.
She also wants to have another donation box, hopefully located at a public library. Many people experiencing homelessness go there during the day, she said.
Lisa Picker, the director of communications for Carroll County Public Library, said they often help organizations trying to create awareness and promote any collection drives.
Schleicher stresses that menstruating shouldn’t be a taboo subject.
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“We don’t have control over this cycle our body goes through every month,” she said. “Every single person on this planet, I don’t care who you are, should feel that they can take care of that and not be embarrassed and have to hide it.”