As donated boxes of tampons sit on a table in Albemarle High School senior Weining Ding’s home, the Kotex and Always branded-packages are balanced in a tower that threatens to topple over.
Neighbors in Belvedere and Forest Lakes donated the tampons and other period products, like pads and pantyliners, so that Weining and her friend, AHS sophomore Avery Bruen can start putting them in middle schools and high schools in the division.
The project is called empowerHER. Their motivation to start it comes from their own experience.
“One day I had to use one of the cardboard tampons,” which tend to be more difficult to use than a tampon with a plastic applicator, Weining said. “I had to go to two bathrooms to find one.”
At a school as big as Albemarle High School, checking multiple bathrooms for necessary period products eats into class time.
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“It’s another thing that takes away from education. We shouldn’t have to miss this,” Avery said.
One out of every five teenagers in the United States has struggled to afford menstrual supplies, according to a study commissioned by Thinx, a period underwear company, and PERIOD, a nonprofit advancing menstrual equity. More than 80% of students say they’ve missed class time or know someone who has because they couldn’t access period products.
Virginia passed a bill in 2020 requiring public schools to offer students with menstrual supplies at no cost. EmpowerHER has the same goals as the Virginia law—to address period poverty so that students can focus on learning, not whether they can afford a pad.
Sixteen other states have similar laws on the books, and nine states give schools the money to buy period products, according to the Alliance for Period Supplies. Virginia’s law doesn’t grant schools any funding from the state. County schools’ adopted budget for the 2022-2023 school year did not include period products as a line item. That’s part of the problem Avery and Weining want to address.
“It’s not the schools’ fault, but they don’t have the resources to provide this many products,” Weining said, especially given that students need different products.
Even when school bathrooms do have the products students need, the machines that dispense them are faulty.
“The bathrooms are always very busy, and then you’re sitting there jangling the machine … you can feel a little self-conscious doing that,” Avery said.
Avery and Weining started collecting donations for empowerHER a couple weeks ago, but have already amassed 9,000 pads, tampons and pantyliners. On Fridays, they go around picking up supplies from neighborhood donation boxes with a team of five volunteers (the volunteer group includes their brothers). They also have an Amazon wishlist for people who want to send period products directly to empowerHER.
Because they started collecting donations over winter break, Weining and Avery said they had not yet been in contact with county schools about distributing the supplies.
“We’re thinking if we come to them with this idea, with all the backup of the products, and the support and the volunteers, they’ll see that we’re actually serious about this. This is a big positive change,” Avery said.
Weining graduates from Albemarle High School in just a few months, which means Avery will take over empowerHER.
“I’m hoping this is something we can carry on into the future,” Avery said. “I would be honored to continue this thing.”