nadyaokamoto

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Menstrual Health to Systemic Social Change

Techno music streamed from local bars into the dimly-lit streets, signaling the awakening of Portland nightlife. I sat shivering on the cold concrete stoop of an abandoned office building, waiting for the next bus to take me home. Beside me lay a homeless woman swaddled in a pungent sleeping bag, her head cradled on a pillow of plastic bags. I just wanted to get home, but I was only halfway through my two hour commute from school.

Three weeks before, when my younger sisters and I were called to dinner, we found suitcases and boxes stacked about the living room. We laughed at the ridiculousness of the sight, but stopped when we saw our mother’s face: her eyes were swollen and tears traced her cheekbones. She solemnly nudged us to our seats and over baked broccoli and polenta, explained that we could no longer afford our home. Four days later, our belongings in storage, we moved into a friend’s attic across town. My life was reduced to a backpack and a single suitcase. Suddenly, in the spring of my freshman year, I found myself “legally homeless.”

Sitting on the cold concrete step in Old Town Portland that night, with five homeless shelters within a two-block radius, I felt confused: Was I really homeless, even though I had somewhere warm and clean to sleep? Though I attended an exclusive private school on scholarship, I had no legal address. I had to give up dance and piano, take a job to cover expenses, and spend four hours a day on buses. Though I worked harder than ever before, I witnessed my grades dip and social life suffer.

In an ironic twist, my sophomore year began with a history class that focused on quality of life. It explored the relationship between privilege and happiness, and how financial stability, health, and social relationships contribute to wellbeing. The class made me reflect deeply on the wizened faces of homeless women as I travelled to and from school. As days passed, I started talking with these women as they visited social services and shelters downtown, or with those I served volunteering at a local soup kitchen. I learned that though I was legally “homeless” like them, unlike them, I was blessed to have physical safety, a supportive family, and an educational community. Most significantly, I was shocked to discover an unaddressed need of the homeless female population: menstrual hygiene. These women told me of using paper bags, discarded clothing, and toilet paper during their monthly cycles, all strategies that carry a high risk of infection and toxic shock syndrome. I began to purchase feminine hygiene products with money I earned through work to hand out to the homeless women I encountered.

My despair at my family’s living situation slowly transformed into a determination to address this social need. As my family regained stability, I founded Camions of Care, a nonprofit organization that strives to address the natural needs of all women.

Camions of Care is now a global youth-run nonprofit that strives to manage menstrual hygiene through advocacy, education, and service---through the global distribution of feminine hygiene products and development of youth leadership through campus chapters. In the last year and a half, our network of 1,700 volunteers has distributed over 12,000 care packages of feminine hygiene products to 32 nonprofit partners in 10 different states and 6 different countries, and is expanding our chapter network from 24 established at university and high school campuses around the US.

In observing and facing prejudice, and working to understand the roots of discrimination, I am filled with motivation to create sustainable systemic change in my life that works towards a more equitable and just future. What stands is my way is connecting with larger audiences for my advocacy platform, and continuing my learning process as a growing adult. My life mission and goal is to create positive sustainable social change and I believe the best way to enacting this change is through changing the system itself--which points me in the direction of politics and advocacy.

nadyaokamoto Southwest 6th Avenue, Pearl District, Portland, Multnomah County, Oregon, 97204, United States of America