The first thing that strikes you when you meet Nadya Okamoto, Executive Director of Camions of Care, is her unrelenting passion for her cause. At only 17 years old, the fact that she has been able to cultivate such an incredible community around her cause is awe-inspiring, and speaking with her is an inspiring experience in-and-of itself. Her creation is Camions of Care, which advocates for women’s rights and natural needs by distributing feminine hygiene products to underprivileged women. Nadya officially started the program almost a year ago (their one year anniversary is December 1, 2015), but the idea had been brewing for almost three years prior, since her freshman year of high school.

Having briefly experienced homelessness herself, Nadya spent up to four hours a day commuting in Portland on public transportation. Being a naturally outgoing, curious person, she began speaking with other homeless women, and the conversations often led to Nadya asking them “What is the hardest thing you are experiencing?” Again and again, women had the same answer:  issues surrounding menstruation. They shared stories of their monthly struggles and experiences such as having to use brown paper bags, stolen pillowcases or nothing at all, and the negative health effects these actions caused.

Nadya was appalled by the experiences of these women, especially because so many women don’t give a second thought to their menstrual cycles. She became obsessed with the idea of helping, and began using her own money to buy feminine hygiene products and deliver them in her free time to women in Portland. Often when delivering the products the women would break down and become emotional that this problem was finally being addressed. Nadya was inspired to make her efforts bigger and better so that she could help even more women, which led her to create Camions of Care.

She knew that she couldn’t tackle this issue alone, so she set out to build a team. Her top choice for a business partner was Vincent Forand, a fellow student that Nadya wasn’t close with but knew would be a valuable asset for Camions of Care due to his business sense and financial knowledge. Vincent was unfamiliar with the topic and slightly hesitant at first, but once they discussed the project he realized the need for feminine products in the community and the impact that Camions of Care could have. He was looking for a way to put his recent business training to use, and Nadya provided the passion for the project.

Initially, Nadya and Vincent had the goal of delivering 20 care packages per week. Each package costs $2 to put together and includes 9 tampons, 4 pads, 5 pantyliners and any other miscellaneous products that have been donated such as shampoo, baby wipes or soap. Once women became aware of what Camions of Care were, doing the demand quickly grew and they are now distributing an average of 200 care packages per week.

At this point, Nadya and Vince have cultivated a team of peers in Portland to help run the executive board of Camions of Care. Initially they had trouble recruiting volunteers due to the wealth in their community; many people felt defensive or shameful over their privilege. They also weren’t taken seriously by their classmates until they were written about in the Oregonian and people began to see how serious they were. Now, they are having to implement application processes for joining their leading team.

In addition to the executive board, they also have a nationwide network of campus chapters, which is an amazing way to get youth involved across the country. Nadya and her team provide chapters with a toolkit to run their network, which includes operational procedures and development and marketing plans. The campus chapters operate at three different levels: some just fund-raise, some advocate, and some distribute.

The campus chapters are especially important as Nadya and Vincent will be heading off to college soon, but want to make sure that Camions of Care stays intact. Their goal moving forward is to strengthen their chapter network and eventually have distribution teams all over the United States. Before that can happen they want to professionalize their organization and engage full-time staff to take over grant-writing and development. Right now Nadya works tirelessly writing grants and trying to get funding, so finding someone to fill that role would be ideal.

Camions of Care’s biggest struggle is fundraising. Applying for grants is helpful, but they need more consistent ways of collecting funds to help support their cause. Since they are youth and they work with mostly youth, it is often hard to cultivate donations. Right now their main form of marketing and communication is through social media, but in order to truly grow Camions of Care, their fundraising and marketing success will have to grow.

Another focus of the Camions of Care team is to expand their network globally. They have sent care packages to Guatemala, and a group from the Mukuru slums in Nairobi, Kenya reached out to Nadya about the problems menstruation causes for girls there; on average, girls miss 7 days of school per month due to menstruation stigma.  The challenge Camions of Care faces is prohibitive international shipping costs and having to focus on who they can realistically support. They could send supplies to other countries, but then their money doesn’t go as far to serve other areas of need. Should they serve the global community if so many people in the US are struggling?  The conversation continues.  

Camions of Care has made great strides in helping women with menstrual support, and they have no plans to slow down anytime soon. Nadya and Vincent have an incredible amount of  passion and commitment for their cause, and their philanthropic spirit is infectious. We came away from our interview feeling inspired to help and in awe of the work that they have accomplished in such a short amount of time.

To learn more about Camions of Care, or to donate to the cause, visit their visit their website or follow them on social media.