Everyone with a period knows the hassle of getting their period unexpectedly. For most of us, the remedy is at worst a pharmacy or corner store away, but those experiencing homelessness the hassle is often much harder to bare. For Jana Girdauskas, an unexpected run-in with her leftover postpartum menstrual products led to an aha moment and got her thinking about how she might help lessen the burden. Inspired, Girdauskas started a movement with the support of her community that provides menstrual products and other necessities to Ontarians in need. With help from a team of volunteers, The Period Purse has so far provided nearly 2500 purses stuffed with sanitary items — and a sense of connection — to homeless menstruators around the province. We talked to Girdauskas about how she managed this epic feat while juggling raising two boys with a full-time career.
How did The Period Purse Begin?
Well, in Toronto I was seeing more and more people experiencing homelessness, which got me thinking about how I could have a care package in my car to give someone panhandling. I went home to my closet thinking, “There’s an extra cream, there are that toothpaste and toothbrush from my dentist, I’m not using that scarf anymore.” That’s when I saw my postpartum menstrual pads and had the aha moment. I’d never considered how someone who menstruates handles that while homeless. I had this moment of, “Oh my gosh, what do they do?” That’s when the idea of a purse filled with menstrual products came to me, the only thing I didn’t have was the purse.
So I put a note on a parenting Facebook page saying, “I have this idea. Does anybody have a purse they can give me for free?” I got an amazing response from my local community. Several people offered purses already filled. I couldn’t say no, so my back porch started exploding with donations. It went from, “I’ll do one purse” to “I’ll collect stuff for two weeks”. My husband kept asking me, “Is this going to be a thing?” So, yeah, now it’s a thing.
I’m assuming you must have gotten help quite quickly.
Yes! I couldn’t do it all by myself. This project feels like I’m driving a big bus full of awesome people. In Toronto, I have 14 coordinators each doing their piece of the puzzle. Someone does social media; somebody else manages the chapters; another volunteer handles deliveries. Without their help and support, the project wouldn’t be as successful.
You’ve done all this in a year while raising two kids and working full-time?
It wasn’t something I planned, and it wasn’t something I really have time for, but I feel like I’ve been given this opportunity to educate people and share the aha moment I had. There’s a lot of negativity in the world right now and it feels nice to be able to give more time to something that creates such positivity. I really believe if you give love you get love.
How do people respond when they get one of your purses?
The reaction of the women — and trans men — who get our products has been pretty unbelievable. One woman was like, “Wow I want that purse,” and when she saw what was inside it was like Christmas. We don’t just give menstrual products. It’s a little hygiene kit with goodies. We put some chocolate in there and a nice motivational letter. One woman wrote me saying it was a beautiful gift that she got when she arrived at the shelter — they were giving them out to newcomers coming in. I’ve also heard people say, “Finally someone is listening, this is what we needed.” Another told me recently that when she was having a period and she went to the shelter workers to ask for products — if they had any at all — they’d give her one tampon. She was overwhelmed to get the purse. It’s something that usually gets overlooked and it was finally getting attention. In Toronto, we provide ongoing support to more than 500 menstruators through the shelters we’ve chosen. Those women and trans men needn’t worry about asking for that one tampon or pad.
I can’t imagine having to deal with my period in such a vulnerable situation.
Right. We all know the upset of being caught without a tampon at work or being out and unprepared when all of a sudden your period comes. Homeless people have to deal with this all the time. They make homemade stuff out of things like newspaper, paper towel, and socks. Obviously, none of that is very hygienic.
How can people help?
Our goal is to get two other major cities across Canada involved — the need is certainly there. If people are interested in starting a chapter they can contact us at email@example.com and we will support them. All we ask is they do one drive a year for purses and sanitary products. This is a great time of year to do it, with Mother’s Day coming. It doesn’t have to be huge. If you do 10 purses you’re going to help 10 women. It’s amazing how once you get started so many people step up. To be able to collect then give the purses to a shelter in your city is a beautiful thing. We accept cash donations too because $15 spent with us can go further than $15 at a pharmacy.
Do your kids understand what you’re doing?
The five-year-old gets it. He’s been out with me on deliveries — now whenever he sees a homeless woman he says, “Mommy you need to give them something.” I now have a stock in my car for that reason. We have a lot of beautiful teaching moments about why that person is homeless and what we can do to help and be kind. He can explain a period and what a tampon is, which I think is really beautiful. I think most people talk more to their daughters about this stuff than their sons, but why? My sons are going to grow up and have women in their lives. I see this as the beginning of it not being a taboo subject, talking to our boys about it. I just explain it in terms of, “This is what it is, and this is what I need.”
Last year he told his kindergarten teacher, “My mom gives purses to homeless women because sometimes they bleed out of their vaginas.” I was like, “That’s my elevator pitch, from the mouth of a four-year-old.” His male teacher found it pretty funny, and I was proud that he gets it. One of my most important roles in this world is parenting my kids so that they grow into kind citizens, and this project gives me an opportunity to teach him about the importance of giving back.
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