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Helping girls learn, period
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Helping girls learn, period

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How did Albany resident Lena Spencer end up with a car trunk full of pads and tampons?

“It’s kind of a long story,” she said.

Spencer found herself out to eat with a group of girls to celebrate a 16th birthday and the girls, all teenagers, were excited about the ability to start working and earning a paycheck.

“They were talking about being able to buy basic necessities,” Spencer said. “I started asking questions and I heard some really hard stories.”

One story centered around a girl who was unable to attend class because she didn’t have enough pads or tampons to make it through the school day.

“We don’t ask students to bring toilet paper to school in order to go to class. As women, we don’t have a choice, so why do we ask girls to bring period products in order to go to school?” Spencer asked.

In the passing years, Spencer has gone from collecting a few grocery bags full of period products to bringing bins and bins of boxes to the local high schools. Her daughter Ava, she says, is the student on the ground while she's the parent in the trees working out the logistics and donations. 

The products are placed in baskets in the female bathrooms and are free. For some girls, it makes the difference between being able to attend class or having to stay home.

On average, a box of tampons costs about $7. Depending on the person, a box could last several cycles or just one, and for some families it’s an additional cost that could sometimes be unattainable and lead to difficult choices. The price of a new box of tampons at the end of a cycle is often weighed against the student’s ability to simply stay home for a day or two.

“Our bodies,” Spencer said, “shouldn’t be barriers to education.”

Spencer has relied on friends and acquaintances for donations. At the start of the year, she managed to gain the attention of the local school board.

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Greater Albany Public Schools has been a great partner, Spencer said, and some teachers keep their own stock of period products for students as well.

“Before COVID-19, I went to present to the school board,” she said. “And there were men there, and I think a lot of lights went on that day, and they were very surprised this is an issue for their students.”

But the school board has not taken the issue up again as the pandemic bore down and started closing stores and then schools.

Students that relied on school for period products were suddenly cut off last spring.

Until GAPS and Spencer joined forces again.

During registration, girls were given the chance to choose from products, and each semester when students pick up their books, they’re given the same opportunity.

“Some girls will say, ‘These are so much nicer than what I normally get,’” Spencer said. “Because they get their products from the dollar store. And we want to give them a choice because what’s comfortable for me might not be comfortable for you.”

And while the textbook pickup is working for some students to access the products, Spencer is searching for new ways to distribute them.

“There’s an email chain of about 15 people talking about it,” she said, noting that often the students who need the products overlap with the students who may not be likely to travel to the school for textbooks.

Fixes may include setting up a booth or making them available at the free lunch pickup locations throughout the county. That solution, though, may not be a fix-all either, Spencer said, since the students picking up lunches tend to be younger and aren’t in need of the products yet.

“We’re just looking for a way to use our time and the limited resources we have to get the products to the students who need them,” she said. “And Albany has been awesome. They always step up for the kids.”

Donations, Spencer said, can go through the Albany Schools Foundation by donating funds and specifying that they are to be used for the Period Project.

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