At Veeda, we are naturally huge fans of women that empower and help other women in the world, especially when it comes to their health, which is why we’re chatting today with the founder and CEO of Camions of Care, Nadya Okamoto.
In many developing countries, girls miss school and women miss work every month because of menstruation. Nadya was homeless for a certain period and seeing the struggles of other women in regards to menstruation inspired her to take an incredible and much appreciated action.
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.
I founded Camions of Care in the summer after my sophomore year of high school. That year my family had experienced legal homelessness, and it was through that experience of reflecting upon the spectrum of privilege that we live in that I felt the obligation to do something for the betterment of my community. During the several months that my family was legally homeless, my commute to school was over two hours long each way and I also stayed at a women’s shelter for a weekend, it was through talking to homeless women in those experiences that I discovered the unaddressed natural need of menstrual hygiene and realized how challenging it was for women to maintain their periods when they didn’t have the resources. I collected stories of women using toilet paper, stolen pillowcases, and brown paper grocery bags, all strategies that caused great discomfort. I was also inspired to found Camions of Care after learning that menstruation is the number one reason why girls miss school in developing countries, and that this is the single event that leads to girls dropping out of school, getting married at a young age, or worse, having to undergo female genital mutilation.
Camions of Care is a youth-run global nonprofit that strives to celebrate menstrual hygiene through advocacy, youth leadership, and service--through the global distribution of feminine hygiene products and the engagement of youth leadership through a nationwide network of campus chapters. I strongly believe that our initiatives can change the world. By partnering with over 40 nonprofit partners and bringing it to their attention that menstrual hygiene is something that needs to be prioritized for the women that they serve, we are making the investment on priorities for that organization. Through our youth engagement initiatives, we are catalyzing social change in the mindsets of the next generation and breaking down the stigma surrounding the topic of periods. We are preparing to launch a policy advocacy program for our youth leaders, and that will make systemic social change in making menstrual hygiene more accessible for all women and girls.
It was not that difficult for me because I was extremely passionate about the cause, and I was also blessed to have Vincent Forand, now one of my best friends and business partner, right by my side the entire time. The actual implementation of our services is made possible by one six-hour session we had when Vince and I met at a Starbucks and created the infrastructure of our entire organization. Working with him in partnership on Camions of Care has made the actual implementation of this program possible. It was, of course, a lot of work, but because I was so passionate I felt that there was nothing that could stop me from advocating for menstrual hygiene for all women and girls.
Our biggest challenge as an organization is maintaining a stream of incoming donations (monetary and in-kind) to support the growing demand of our services. As we spread word about our work and expand our network, we continuously receive more requests from nonprofit partners or chapters who could truly benefit from our services. However, it is often a struggle to maintain enough development to support that demand. It is also difficult since we started when Vincent and I were both only sixteen-years-old and had to make a strong case to persuade adults to financially contribute to our initiative before we had any credibility as nonprofit executives. We have dealt with this challenge by never losing hope, constantly talking about our organization to potential supporters, and not being afraid to talk to people about menstrual hygiene and why they should support our organization.
I believe that we have been able to stand out because (1) we are an organization that is trying to address menstruation, something that is often uncomfortable for people to talk about; (2) we are a youth-run global organization; and (3) no one can deny that this may be a major obstacle to our global development since it is seriously holding women and girls back.
I think that there is still a strong stigma surrounding the topic of menstruation because it is still thought of as “gross” and “very personal,” which it can be. In addition, it is usually thought of purely as a “woman’s issue,” something that only the women and girls have to think about (even though many women are often nervous to talk about it with other women). This narrative needs to change because not talking about menstrual hygiene is truly holding women and girls back and that needs to change. It warms my heart when I am told that women and men, girls and boys, come to realize just how natural periods are after they hear Camions of Care present.
Upwards of 18,000 care packages have been assembled. In the last two years, Camions of Care has addressed over 25,000 periods through our distribution services of menstrual hygiene products in 17 states and 9 countries.
I saw this quote on some cheesy wood block at a boutique once, and bought it for my room and continue to remind myself of it: “If you love the life you will live, you will live a life of love.” The quote reminds me to continue reflecting on my life and be grateful for all I have been blessed with so I can live my life to the fullest. I am inspired by so many women, particularly my mother, who inspires me for her intelligence, resourcefulness, and strength.
The greatest success for Camions of Care has so far been the exponential growth of the number of periods that we have addressed, 25,000!
My hopes for the future are to start making systemic social change surrounding menstrual hygiene, which we are going to start doing with Camions of Care very soon with our new policy program, stay tuned! I hope to also move into policy myself. I will be starting Harvard College as an undergraduate in just a few weeks and plan to focus in political science, government, and global health policy.
At 18 years old, she’s already given a TEDx Talk about the menstrual movement and the mission of her organization. And have we mentioned that she just graduated from high school in Portland, Oregon, and is on her way to Harvard University? Best of luck Nadya and Camions of Care, we fully support you.