It was late and Demetra Presley couldn’t sleep, so she reached for her cell phone and opened Facebook.
She watched a video about Kristin Heavner, a middle school teacher in Detroit who fills cute zippered bags with menstrual products and keeps them in her desk for girls who unexpectedly start their periods, some for the first time.
The teacher tells students to take what pads and tampons they need and even offers extras to take home.
Because, the teacher explained, not all girls could afford to buy their own.
“Oh, my gosh,” Demetra thought. She couldn’t believe students were dealing with that.
She woke the next morning still thinking about it.
She talked to friends with teenage girls. She asked teachers she knew if girls had access to menstrual products at school. They often didn’t.
Cyndi Tercero-Sandoval, the student support services manager at the Phoenix Union High School, District told Demetra that few schools have machines in the bathrooms anymore.
Students can get assistance if they are homeless or live below the federal poverty level. But for many students, after their parents pay rent and utilities and buy groceries, there is nothing to spare. “This is the last priority,” Cyndi said.
Girls feel guilty asking. So they ration the pads and tampons they do get, not changing them as often as they should, or wad up toilet paper or paper towels in their underwear.
They worry about staining their clothes, which makes it hard to pay attention in class. Some stay home those days rather than risk it.
“The more that I learned about it, the more I spoke to people, the more I wanted to do something,” Demetra said.
What she came up with was simple:
She’d do what the teacher in Detroit did. It felt like a small thing, but it would make her part of a national movement and it would turn out to be bigger than she imagined.
Just take these and don’t talk about it
Demetra was 12 when she got her first period. She had been waiting forever.
Most her friends had already had theirs, their pads tucked deep in their backpacks at school.
Demetra rushed into her parent’s bedroom to tell her mom. Without saying a word, her mom handed her a box of pads and an old health book, the chapter on menstruation dog-eared.
Wait, Demetra thought, she had finally got her period and now she wasn’t supposed to talk about it?
It is like that for a lot of girls.
We got our first periods, and our mothers shushed us about it, handing us menstrual products like they were contraband.
It was a secret, but one we were sure everyone must know about since half the population menstruates.
We tucked pads into our socks and backpacks. We whispered about backaches and cramps in gym class.
We learned to tie sweaters around our waists to hide blood stains and to tuck tampons up our sleeves on our way to the bathroom.
If your period started unexpectedly, you dug in the bottom of your purse for quarters for the finicky machine on the bathroom wall — that is, if it was restocked regularly and hadn’t been vandalized.
The whole experience looked so much better in those commercials for menstrual products, where smiling women with perfect skin played tennis, jumped joyously on the beach and rode horseback through wide fields of daisies, all with a sudden desire to wear white — white shorts, white bikinis and white jeans.
Even in the commercials, no one actually ever said the word “period.”
The message we got was clear: Don’t talk about periods in public.
All that is changing now.
Asking for help and getting it
Demetra’s initiative started, as many things do these days, on Facebook and with a GoFundMe campaign.
She called it “Go With the Flow,” and on Oct. 29, she outlined her plan to make free menstrual products available to students. “No student should have to miss school or compromise their dignity just because their bodies are engaging in a normal, healthy function such as menstruation!” she wrote on Facebook.
Demetra hoped to raise $500. In three days, she had $600.
People she knew were dropping off boxes of pads and tampons at her Phoenix apartment. She met others in store parking lots to collect their donations, filling the back of her Hyundai Elantra.
Every woman had a story to share from their past. They wanted to help because they remembered what it was like. Men donated, too, recalling struggles of sisters or girlfriends.
In December, Demetra sorted the donations piled waist-high in her living room and under the spiral staircase and made a list of what else she needed.
At Costco, Demetra and her boyfriend, Jim McLeod, stacked a cart with boxes of pads and tampons. He did the math to make sure she was getting the best price per item.
Demetra bought zippered make-up bags with cute designs on them online. She wanted something the girls wouldn’t have to hide.
And then she held a period pack packing party, where friends helped her pack a dozen products — pads, panty liners, tampons — into each bag, along with information about an app called “Spot On” to help girls track their periods.
In January, Demetra and Jim rented an SUV and delivered 325 packs to the Phoenix Union High School District, 350 packs to five high schools in Tucson and 100 packs to Homeless Youth Connection, a nonprofit that helps students in 10 school districts.
She will restock each site every month.
It is not what Demetra would have guessed she would be doing at 34. She’s in law enforcement, a probation officer with the Arizona Federal Probation Office, and had worked previously with homeless youth and domestic violence victims.
She remembers from that work that menstrual products always were in short supply and were the least often donated items. She knew it was an issue still from her advocacy work with Planned Parenthood.
“I really don’t know what made me do it. I honestly don’t,” she said. “I just thought, I’m going to try.”
A luxury if you can’t afford them
It turns out all those boxes of tampons and pads crowding Demetra out of her living room make her part of a national movement to lift the stigma from menstruation, a movement that seems to be going mainstream.
The idea is that periods are an equality issue, affecting everything from education and economics to career opportunities and public health.
Lawmakers in Arizona are even talking about it, albeit grudgingly. In the Legislature, they they have taken up two bills that deal with menstruation. One would exempt menstrual products from sales tax, and the other would provide free menstrual products to women in prison.
“Pads and tampons are not optional,” Demetra says. “It is only a luxury in the fact that it is a luxury for people who can’t afford them.”
In January, the bill to exempt menstrual products, diapers and baby formula from sales taxes squeezed by the House Ways and Means committee with a 5-4 vote. It will need the approval of the House Health Committee, too, before it gets to the floor. A similar bill last year made it through one committee before fizzling out.
The bill that would provide incarcerated women with an unlimited supply of menstrual hygiene products also was narrowly approved by the all-male House Military, Veterans and Regulatory Affairs Committee.
For now, female inmates receive 12 free pads each month. They have to ask if they want more, and an officer decides if they get them. They have to buy tampons, difficult when inmates make about 15 cents an hour.
Former inmates testified about the humiliation of begging for products and about bloodstained pants and bed sheets.
“I’m almost sorry I heard the bill,” Republican Rep. Jay Lawrence, the committee chairman, who voted against it, said at the time. “I didn’t expect to hear pads and tampons and the problems of periods.”
Demetra chuckles now. “You can’t have a conversation about pads and tampons and not talk about what they are for.”
But the bill is assigned to the Rules Committee, and chairman Rep. T.J. Shope doesn’t intend to hear it. On Tuesday, the Department of Corrections announced it would triple the number of pads inmates could receive.
It’s the kind of thing that can happen when we talk about it, Demetra says.
So she will keep talking about it.
Now Demetra is collecting products and bags to make 500 packs for three high schools in Buckeye. A Phoenix middle school has asked for some, too.
Girls have enough to worry about
In Phoenix Union, word is spreading about the period packs, on the morning announcements and social media. Girls are picking them up in the community liaisons offices on campus. Even an employee came in for one.
“It might seem like a small thing, but it’s huge,” Cyndi said. “It is huge.”
Things that seem small can keep a student in school. It’s why the schools keep food boxes and small plastic bags of donated laundry detergent for students who need them.
Students with enough to eat and clean clothes can focus on their studies. The period packs help, too.
Because girls this age have enough to worry about. Their bodies are changing, their interests, too. They are worried about getting good grades and making friends. They are thinking about the future.
Girls need to know that what is happening is healthy and natural and nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about, that they can talk about it, ask questions and advocate for what they need as they grow into women.
“For me, in thinking about this, I realized when you start your period, that is when it all begins,” Demetra said.
“I want them to feel positive about it. I want them to feel powerful.”
So Demetra will keep talking about it and, with some help from the community, she will do something about it.
How to help Go With the Flow
Learn more: www.facebook.com/GoWiththeFlowAZ
Reach Bland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-8614.