Nadya Okamoto went through a tough time when she was 15. She was in a physically abusive relationship, and her family became legally homeless after her mother lost her job. They stayed with friends for months, “couchsurfing,” Okamoto said, while her mother saved up money.
She was ashamed and angry. It seemed unfair that she should have it so rough when her classmates at the private school she attended all had stable homes.
While staying with family friends, her commute to school became two hours each way. One of her bus transfers landed her in front of a homeless shelter. The people there would often talk “at me,” she said, until she decided to talk “with them.”
“I gained this love for hearing the stories of these women, because they’re some of the most resilient and thoughtful people,” she said. “Some of them were just there because things didn’t work out or they just had the craziest stories. It gave me strength and awareness of how privileged I was.”
Wanting to hide the bruises on her body left by the person she was dating, who was a few years older than her, she spent a weekend in a homeless shelter instead of with her family. There she also engaged with the homeless people, particularly the women.
She often asked what they found most challenging. The common thread in their answers didn’t stand out to her until she reviewed a journal she had been keeping during this time.
They were ashamed to talk about it, but menstruation posed their biggest challenge.
Women would whisper to her about their “time of the month.” They had to scavenge for brown paper bags, socks, or toilet paper to use, unable to afford feminine hygiene products. They worried constantly about leaks, making it hard for some of them to go to work, not to mention the risks of toxic shock syndrome from insanitary make-shift pads.
Shelters stocked up on food, blankets, and other necessities, but did not consider feminine hygiene products and the women were too shy to ask.
In 2014, Okamoto founded the organization Camions of Care to get these needed products to women. Her classmate, Vince Forand, helped her with the logistics of starting a non-profit.
It was a strong move for such a young person to take, but Okamoto said her mother raised her to be an advocate for those in need. Her mother had left a corporate law career when Nadya was 9 years old to work in grassroots nonprofit management.
Okamoto also recalled times of intense embarrassment as a child when her mother would make a scene while standing up for others. For example, her mother once yelled at a post-office worker for being condescending toward an elderly man who had trouble figuring out how to use a machine at the post office.
“I didn’t realize how much that taught me to be an advocate,” she said. But in hindsight she understands that as soon as she saw the need, she was bound to do something about it. She had lived for months feeling sorry for herself and her family’s situation, she said, and realizing that she was actually quite privileged, she felt she had to use that privilege to help others.
Okamoto recalled how one woman broke into tears when she was given a care package through Camions of Care and said, “You have no idea how hard it’s been for me. I’ve needed these for so long and I’ve never had the guts to ask for them.”
Now 18, Okamoto has given a TED talk and works to break through the stigma around menstruation.
She noted that New York City passed historic legislation last week, becoming the first city in the United States to ensure feminine hygiene products are available free of charge at all homeless shelters, as well as public schools and prisons. This legislation is not directly linked to Okamoto’s advocacy work, but it is a sign that the issue is gaining awareness.
Camions of Care has expanded from a local initiative in Portland, Oregon, to include dozens of non-profit partners and college campus chapters providing thousands of care packages in 12 states and nine countries. In many developing countries, girls miss school and women miss work every month because of menstruation.
In some cultures, girls undergo genital mutilation when they get their first period. The first episode of a Camions of Care film anthology, titled “Period Stories,” features a woman from such a culture. Okamoto sees menstruation as a major global development issue.
Okamoto will start college at Harvard this fall, but will continue to expand Camions of Care.
Maxim Hygiene recently donated 280,000 organic tampons to Camions of Care. This helped the organization cut the cost of their care packages in half. A $2 donation used to provide a package for one woman’s needs. Now people can donate $1 to take care of one woman. To make a donation, visit CamionsofCare.org/donate.