Student campaign gathers 4,078 pads and tampons for the poor


Honor Fuchs

IMPACT: Senior Sarina Finn, right, and junior Nomi Willis wanted to “normalize” the need for monthly supplies.

On Sunday, Oct. 22, senior Sarina Finn stood on the corner of one of the busiest intersections in L.A.’s Orthodox community, in 94-degree heat, holding a sign that said “THE DRIVE: Donate tampons and pads for women in need.”

Her goal was to raise awareness of a problem most had never thought about: period supplies are hard to afford for women of limited means.

Sarina had a large bin sponsored by the Jewish Family Service, and during her drive it filled — four times — with packages of women’s health supplies donated by passersby.   At the end of the day, she had collected 4,704 tampons and pads.

As cars roared past and honked uproariously, she explained to interested pedestrians what her project planned to achieve and how she’d distribute donations.

“There’s a big stigma towards periods and I think that a woman shouldn’t be embarrassed for buying tampons or pads – that’s a natural thing,” Sarina said.

Sarina had been planning a drive for women’s health products since the summer, and although it had suffered one setback, she persisted and was pleased with the results.

The drive’s goals were to destigmatize women’s health as a topic, raise awareness of  the lack of resources for monthly supplies, and make it okay to talk about it – along with helping as many women as possible.

Sarina said her main inspiration began over the summer when she and junior Nomi Willis were re-starting Shalhevet’s Girls Learn International club, a co-curricular focused on the education of girls in Third World countries.

She thought about how many women in those countries cannot go to school because once a month, for a week, they would have a period and use “crazy things like rags and leaves, and a lot of times get infections,” she said.

“It kind of became us thinking about the issues in our own community, like tampons and pads are kind of not thought about in big drives like canned food and toothbrushes and shampoo, but tampons and pads are always passed over. There’s a lack of this product in donations.”

Sarina planned to organize a period supply drive at Shalhevet. But in a sign of the sensitivity of the issue in Orthodox Judaism, they were not allowed to hold the drive at school.

Principal Dr. Noam Weissman supported the cause but not the presentation.

“Obviously we want to help these women, and there’s nothing at all wrong with feminine hygiene products,” Dr. Weissman said.

He said he thought a campaign about period products would need preparation, with Town Halls and other discussion, whereas Sarina’s plan would have “shock value.”

“At Shalhevet we require subtlety and nuance, and it’s not the most tzanua thing,” Dr. Weissman said, using the Hebrew word usually translated as “modest” and that implies keeping certain things private.

He was also worried that some younger students might not react appropriately.

“The thing I said to them was I wanted it to be more based on necessities, as part of a necessities campaign for people in general, and I think they wanted to focus it on tampons, and I wanted tampons to become part of this, as opposed to it being exclusively about that,” Dr. Weissman said, “And not as a shock value sort of thing.”

To Sarina, this changed the project in a way that interfered with her message.

“When each girl has her period, that is a personal thing for them, but the whole idea of a period and the fact that women have their period is definitely not a private thing,” said Sarina.

Ms. Atara Segal, who has studied Jewish law that relates to women’s health as part of her current training to become a yoetzet halacha, agreed that tzniut, or modesty, was involved.

Tzniut is about what’s appropriate for a specific context,” Ms. Segal said.

She said a period products drive could be tzanua if presented in an educational way.

“Tzanua is about what’s appropriate for a specific context,” Ms. Segal said.  She said people’s comments like, “She’s in a bad mood, she must be on her period,” showed a lack of understanding about the issue.

“That is so inappropriate,” Ms. Segal said. “People have emotions because they have emotions, not because they’re dictated by their bodies. That’s a misconception that some boys in our school have about women getting their periods.”

She said it would be good for students to learn that some women’s lives, especially poor women or women in developing nations, are negatively impacted every month from getting their period.

“Some women miss work because they cannot afford having enough pads or tampons,” she said.

Sarina believes women’s health has a large stigma attached to it and that it is a taboo topic many wish to avoid discussing.  She still wishes Shalhevet had let her hold the drive at school.

If the drive had been held at Shalhevet, she said, she probably would have collected less, but she would have accomplished her greater goal of raising awareness.

“The point of the drive wasn’t only to get the tampons and pads but it was also to raise awareness,” she said.

After Sarina was rebuffed, she decided to keep trying, and organized a public drive. She set up her stand outside the Walgreen’s at the corner of Pico and Robertson, and stood there for three hours accepting donations from members of the community, answering questions from people interested, as well as being denied and turned down by many of those she approached.

When the day was over, she brought what she’d collected to the JFS, which did not have room for them all and sent some to their location in the Valley.

Dr. Weissman was one of those who bought supplies and put them in the bin.  Judaic Studies teacher Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg posted a Schoology message the night before the drive urging students to participate.

Meanwhile, she said that there were men who came up to her, asked her questions and donated.

“There were husbands who came up to me and said ‘I’ve never even bought these things for my wife!’” Sarina said. “That was really cool to see, that even at Walgreen’s, I did educate and make it a more normalized thing.”