There are all sorts of things that most of us never think about.
Menstrual products are among them.
Okay. I assume that some not-insignificant number of our readers are about to turn the page now, either appalled, or shocked, or just all of a sudden very interested in something else, that just happens to be across the room.
But simple items like menstrual products, which cost little enough so that most middle-class people don’t think about them as they toss them in their grocery carts, can be too expensive for some less fortunate people to buy, and their lack makes a huge difference in their lives.
Sisters Emma and Quinn Joy of South Orange come from a family that believes in public service; both their parents, Elise and Rick Joy encourage it. Elise is so steeped in public service that it is far more natural for her to work on a project — or perhaps more directly, to create and lead a project — than not to be engaged in such work, and her daughters, whether by nature or nurture, have inherited that inclination.
Their shared initiative, Girls Helping Girls Period, has grown from their little family endeavor to a nationwide effort. It’s now about to win a Russ Berrie Making a Difference award, which is administered by Ramapo College and goes to 24 “unsung heroes” every year. They’ll get $7,500 for their initiative. (Learn more about the Berrie awards at Ramapo.edu/berrie-awards; Girls Helping Girls is at girlshelpinggirlsperiod.org)
Elise Joy, who spent many years as a television producer and now is Girls Helping Girls Period’s fulltime unpaid executive director, talks about her childhood and her parents as she traces the organization’s roots.
“My parents” — Gary and Linda Wiener — “are the kindest people I know,” she said. She grew up Long Meadow, Mass.; her family was active in their local synagogue, Temple Beth El in nearby Springfield.
“The simplest things make my dad happy; I remember that he’d open the garage door, smoke his pipe, watch the rain, and listen to the police scanner.” The police scanner wasn’t accidental. “My father was a chemical engineer, and when he retired, after about 45 years, he became an EMT,” she said. It’s not as if he’d always yearned to be a physician but practicality dictated that he pocket those dreams while studying engineering. No, she said. He’d wanted to be an engineer — and he earned his engineering degree from Cornell — but when he was done, he was done.
Now, he wanted to become an EMT. “He studied very hard, and he had one of the top, if not the top, score for the EMT test the year he took it. And then he also did extra training, so he could drive the ambulance. He did that until he was in his mid-70s, his daughter said.
“He has a giant heart. And it’s not overt in him. He just really very quietly cares a lot. He is very quiet about it. But he cares a lot.”
Ms. Joy also took inspiration from her great aunt, her mother’s mother’s sister. That was her Aunt Ruth, the sister of Elise’s grandmother, Esther Birnbaum Lewis. Ruth Birnbaum never married and never had children, Ms. Joy said, but she was very close to her nieces and nephews, and to their children. A few weeks after her younger daughter, Quinn, was born, Ms. Joy’s Aunt Ruth had a stroke; she lived for three more years but never spoke again.
Ruth Birnbaum grew up in Weequahic and moved to a small apartment in Maplewood, where she lived until her stroke; then her family, facing the inevitable, moved her to Daughters of Israel in West Orange. “I went there every day to feed her breakfast, and then I’d leave,” Ms. Joy said. She’d worked for years as an executive secretary at what is now the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest. “When we were cleaning out her apartment after we realized that she’d be staying at Daughter of Israel, I found a steno pad in a drawer. The pad had a list of her charitable contributions for the last few years.
“There were probably 30 or 40 organizations on the list, and she’d give maybe $5, $10 to each one. She gave $25 to the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation — that was the biggest one — because one of mother’s sisters, who is now 86, was one of the oldest survivors of juvenile Type I diabetes.
“I was so struck by this woman, my Aunt Ruth. She never really made much — how much could an executive secretary at the federation have made? — but she had such a big heart. She cared so much.
“I have a very special place in my heart for small donors to us,” she concluded. “They remind me a lot of Aunt Ruth. These are such specific, concrete examples of goodness.”
There are many ways to do good, Ms. Joy said. “I always said to the girls that you should remember three things. You should give back to the community, it should be fun, and you should find some way to inspire other people to do it with you. It feels good to help other people to find out how good it feels.”
Girls Helping Girls Period wasn’t the Joy sisters’ first mitzvah project. “When they were young, they formed a group called Small Acts,” Emma and Quinn’s mother said. “It wasn’t anything formal. I made them t-shirts and business cards.” Their work was volunteering at whatever jobs people needed them for; “they volunteered at a retirement center, and Quinn used to teach crafting at a sports clinic.” It was fun for them, Ms. Rose said; “If community service isn’t fun, you won’t want to do it.” Part of their job was to figure out how to infuse fun into volunteer tasks.
In 2015, when Emma Joy, who now is 21 and finishing her junior year at American University in Washington, was at Columbia High School in Maplewood, “she had been doing a very small project for the interfaith food pantry in the Oranges,” Elise Joy said. “She was 15ish, and she’d worked there for many years as a volunteer.” She was collecting canned food for the pantry.
“I’m good at making things, and at packaging things,” Ms. Joy said. “I said, ‘Let’s call this the Thousand Can Challenge.’ We’ll ask people to drop food donations off on our porch for a week, and say that we want to get 1,000 cans donated.” They met that goal easily, because “if you gameify things, people will do them.”
The collection was not a new idea; they added the marketing twist. “Other people saw that, and they did it too,” Ms. Joy said. “That’s a good thing. Nobody can steal anything from us. They can borrow good ideas.”
The local newspaper, the News-Record of Maplewood and South Orange, sent over a reporter to write about the project. “As she was leaving, she said, ‘Maybe the next time you do this, you might want to think about collecting menstrual products, because they are not covered by SNAP,’” the state-run Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “I said to the reporter, who I credit totally with this idea, ‘Oh no. That can’t be right. Of course they’re covered by SNAP.’ And she said, ‘No. They’re not.’
“So I got on the computer, Emma and Quinn sat down with me, and we saw that the reporter was right.”
Of course, that omission makes sense in a way. Menstrual products are not food. “But what we’ve found in the last five years, as we have met with thousands of people, and they all say to us, ‘That never occurred to me,’ and we tell them that it never occurred to us either,” Ms. Joy said.
“But once people learn that there are people who struggle with the lack of this product they want to help.”
Since then, the issue has gained some traction, but then, “terms like period poverty and menstrual equity hadn’t been coined yet,” Ms. Joy said. Now, “it’s been all over the front pages.”
She’s learned more about the issue, Ms. Joy said. She talked to a school nurse in Newark, who told her that girls who cannot afford products often are absent from school every month.”
It was during winter vacation, and she, her husband, Rick, and their daughters discussed the problem. “What if we have a brunch, and everyone is asked to bring menstrual products?” someone asked. They also challenged their friends to come up with their own ideas. “Over the course of three months, there were some pretty fantastic events,” Ms. Joy said. “We had our brunch. A friend had a party around Valentine’s Day; everything was red. She had a red velvet cake with a tampon on top. We have another friend who did a red-carpet party, like for the Oscars. Another friend, in Chatham, had a Bloody Mary brunch. The whole thing was hilarious.”
By hosting these silly, stigma-busting parties, “we collected 50,000 menstrual products. We were able to guess what a year’s supply would be, and we packaged up 180 years’ worth of supplies and brought them to the Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges.” That means that the pantry was able to give a year’s worth of supplies to 180 people.
Did people find the idea of collecting menstrual products embarrassing? Menstruation is a natural body function, but it’s one we’ve all been trained not to mention.
“It’s funny,” Ms. Joy said. “At those initial events, we found that people giggled just a little bit, but when we invited them, everyone came, men and women, and they dropped off products. In our party, we framed statistics and put them near carnations in little vases, with a message like “a woman is likely to use about 16,000 products in her lifetime.” We did our best to make our home a conversation piece.
“I remember that my husband was talking about it with one of the other dads, who made some sort of comment, I don’t remember exactly what, and my husband just said, “we both have daughters and wives, so knock it off.’ And he shut up.”
The initial embarrassment generally gives way to understanding, she continued. “There are some people who are shy about it, or who think it’s not appropriate to talk about it, but I much prefer to think about the people who have been marginalized by the lack of conversation about it.
“Many men go to the food pantry. When we go to a food pantry, I will say, ‘Is there anyone in your home who would benefit from some free menstrual products?’ I go up to everyone and approach them in the exact same way, and I am always struck by the men who stare at me blankly.
“Sometimes it’s a language issue. And sometimes they don’t know what you’re talking about.
“A few years ago, there were two men in line, and I asked them that question. I don’t speak great Spanish, so I asked an interpreter to ask if there is anyone in his family who could benefit from these products. He stared at me blankly, so I took out a package of pads. Still blank stares.
“I asked, ‘Do you know what these are?’ Still blank stares. So I said, ‘I don’t want to embarrass you, but can we have a conversation?’ So I opened up a package of pads, and pulled one out, and asked, ‘Are you familiar with these?’ There was no recognition. So I said, ‘Let me tell you what they are.
“I asked, ‘Do you know that women bleed once a month?’ and they said yes. But there was no recognition of the pads.
“I tell this story a lot because we are not advancing our cause when there are people who do not know about basic bodily functions, or how to deal with them. I find less that people don’t want to talk about it, or only want to make fun of it, and I find more that people are either hesitant or clueless.
“I had this discussion with some town supervisors a few years ago. I wanted to talk about getting products in public buildings, and they could not stop cracking jokes. And then I said, ‘Stop. Take a breath. I know it’s embarrassing.’ And then you finally can talk about it, once they finally get comfortable.”
Girls Helping Girls Period has grown; it’s no longer a drop-off-some-packages-on-the-stoop kind of organization. “We just keep collecting, and one thing leads to another,” Ms. Joy said. Her daughters created a Facebook page, and then they worked with a family friend, Jeff Rothstein, who owns an ad agency. He created the group’s logo, and donated it. “They did a whole presentation in their New York City office for the girls,” Ms. Joy said. “The adults were presenting to them.” Another friend owns a company called Springfield Label; that company donated supplies to the project. “So many businesses donated so many things,” she continued. “On Passover in 2016, we have a picture of my father making kiddush at the seder, surrounded by boxes of pads and tampons. That’s what my house looked like for the first couple of years. We collected and collected and collected. We started making donations to schools and shelters. As far as we know, we were the first organization that donated menstrual products in one-year supplies.” They’ve moved away from that model, though, she said; she’s learned that older women can benefit from a cache of pads and tampons, but younger women and girls, whose bodies and needs change more, and who also might move more, do not want such mounds of stuff at once.
“We continued to work at this, and more and more people reached out to us to donate,” Ms. Joy said. “The girls were doing amazing social media stuff. For the first two years we had weekly meetings in our home, with our social media calendar. Quinn is a great photographer and artist, and Emma is a great public speaker. They gave speeches, they did press and radio show interviews, they were all over the place.”
About two years ago, “something wonderful happened,” she said. “A company called Edgewell, that distributes Stayfree and Carefree tampons and pads, reached out to us with a very large donation. They sent us a crazy amount of stuff. We found 40 volunteers willing to meet us at 5 in the morning, when the truck was due. I was coaching softball, and one of our assistant coaches is a real estate agent who had just bought a bank building in downtown Maplewood. When I heard that we were getting a tractor-trailer-worth of stuff, I called him in a panic. We looked for warehouse space in a hurry. And then he said, ‘Wait a minute! I own a bank.’
“So 40 people helped, in the dark of night, to move about 350,000 pads into a building that forever became known to us as the pad bank.” She kept using that space until its broken elevator made tromping up and down the stairs with huge boxes too hard to use.
The Edgewell donation was just the first of many similar gifts. “We have been really lucky because the companies that make these products have seen the work that we do, and they have been generous.
“We have learned that packaging and products change constantly, and sometimes they have to get rid of products. They ask if we want it; if not, they have to throw it away, and they don’t want to have to do that. At the end of last year, Edgewell was reconfiguring its storage space in some way; they called and offered me millions of products. I didn’t have space for it. So I asked if they could give me a week, and then send it wherever I could find space.”
The answer was yes. “They’re a good corporate partner,” Ms. Joy said. “We helped distribute millions of products.”
Over the last six years, Girls Helping Girls Period has gone from a little side project to the main focus of Ms. Joy’s workday. She doubts she’ll go back to television production. “I am the executive director of our 501C3 organization,” she said. “We work all over New Jersey and the surrounding area, and all over the country. It’s my full-time volunteer job now. Emma is studying environmental science, and Quinn is about to go to college. They are vice presidents on our board, and they do whatever is needed of them. We have no paid employees; this is a volunteer family organization. I am working to make it more long-term sustainable by putting more permanent things in place, because the need has proven to be so great.
“We want to be around as long as we need to be around, but I would like to be out of business in five years, because we have helped solve the problem.”
Emma Joy has just finished her last junior-year final and embarked on a trip across the country. She doesn’t know what she’ll do after she graduates, but she knows that she’ll continue her work with Girls Helping Girls Period. “I will keep doing it because people who menstruate miss out on their education when they don’t have the supplies they need, and that has struck a chord with me,” she said. “Education is the key to success. If a period is what keeps someone from getting the education she deserves, I want to do what I can to help.
“Also, the conversation has started to change, and it has to keep changing. How do we destigmatize talking about menstruation, both for people who do menstruate and people who don’t?”
Emma is a confident public speaker. “I grew up as a competitive dancer,” she said. “We were always taught that a period wasn’t something to be ashamed of. We had to deal with being in a leotard and tights while on a period. That was its own experience. It took me some time to grow into being a leader on the subject, but I wasn’t ashamed to talk about it with everyone.
“My sister was 11 when we started, and she hadn’t started menstruating. She had no experience to speak of. She knew about it just an abstraction.” That meant that Quinn was Emma’s first student and critic. “I tried to teach her how to be confident in speaking about your period, so that she didn’t feel there was something to be embarrassed about.
“We always compare it to going to the bathroom. There is toilet paper free and available in every public restroom. Pads are not. We talk about going to the bathroom all the time, but we don’t talk about menstruation.”
It’s not just a local issue. “Period poverty is a national and global issue, and there is classism that goes into it too,” Emma said. “When you are someone who can’t afford to put food on the table or pay rent, a lot of the time you go without things like menstrual products. It would feel wrong to pay for them. But food benefit programs don’t pay for them, so women turn to unhygienic methods, like cardboard or cloth, which can cause health and shame issues that someone from a more wealthy background doesn’t have to face.”
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is an attorney who lived in Maplewood until recently, when she moved to Jersey City. She had a daughter in the same grade as one of Elise Joy’s daughters, but the two knew each other only in passing until they started to talk about period poverty.
That meeting was in 2015, and it was soon after New Year’s Day. Ms. Weiss-Wolf knows that because she remembers that just before she saw a post from Ms. Joy about her new project, “I was doing my own annual New Year’s Day ritual.” She does the polar bear swim off Coney Island. “I do it with a few friends,” she said. “We feel that we need an extra jolt.” That year, she and her friends all wore Wonder Woman costumes. “We were trying to channel something,” she said. “I couldn’t have named it, and I don’t know what it was, but I knew that if we went swimming dressed as Wonder Woman we’d channel it.”
Then she got home and saw Elise Joy’s post.
“It came across my feed, and I had a visceral relationship to it,” she said. “I’m a lawyer by day; I spent my life working for social justice and reproductive justice, but I’d never thought about menstrual access. I didn’t know this issue existed, and there could be a policy agenda around it.
“I was fascinated, so I contacted Elise and let her know I wanted to help.” The two women met in a local Starbucks at 8 one morning, which was the only time they could find and talked using four hours’ worth of words, although they had only 35 minutes to shoehorn all those words into.
Because she is a lawyer who works with public policy — she’s at the Brennan Center, where she’s vice president for development — she was drawn to a different part of the issue than Elise was. Ms. Joy is far more hands-on; she is brilliant at logistics and can make just about anything happen. Jennifer, on the other hand, is drawn to the abstract, the analytic, the theoretical. The effort needed both.
Ms. Weis-Wolf started to think about the problem, and then she wrote about it, driven by the energy generated by the problem itself and the Wonder Woman polar swim and the gallons of coffee that drove the millions of words that she and Ms. Joy exchanged. She sent the piece she wrote to Nick Kristoff, the New York Times columnist whom she did not know but whose email she figured out, and Mr. Kristoff featured her piece on his blog. That was the start of her exhaustive work on the issue; which has not gotten in the way of her day job, because Ms. Weis-Wolf apparently is made of energy. “It was published in January 2015, and then it was off to the races,” she said. “I highlighted Emma and Quinn’s project, and I included a photo of them. It was exciting for me and it was exciting for them. I felt that this was just an untapped treasure, in terms of what it could look like to forge a policy agency.
“Even after all this time, I am not super interested in collection drives and one-on-one conversations. I want to be alone in my office, thinking and writing.
“I think about what menstrual access policy would be like. It is not some magical law. What does the tax code say? What about the FDA labor regulations? What are all the things we could use? There was no discipline that studied this in the United states. Menstruation has never been considered as policy, except in the 1980s, with toxic shock syndrome.”
Since she first met Elise Joy, Ms. Weis-Wolf has written many op-eds, given many interviews, and met a huge number of people, many of them politicians, many of them famous in other areas. It’s allowed her to create what in many ways is its own new field. She’s written a book, “Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity,” and she’s working on changing tax laws that make menstrual products even more expensive.
“And all of this goes back to Elise and her family,” she said. “And to the social action committee at our synagogue” — both women are members at Temple Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, although Ms. Joy is more active there. “My commitment to law and policy is inextricably connected to my Jewish identity,” Ms. Weis-Wolf said. “I approach the work that I do with a very culturally Jewish perspective, and with the kind of commitment to learning and understanding and internalizing the importance of the rules that I think is inherently a very Jewish way.”
The Making a Difference award will be given on Friday; the Joy sisters will be honored because, the foundation says, “Emma and Quinn embody the spirit of making a difference while advocating and educating others to erase the stigma surrounding menstrual health.”
They’ll continue to collect products, their mother will continue to distribute them, and Ms. Weis-Wolf will continue to study the deeper issues that underlie the need for Girls Helping Girls Period. All of them work toward the goal of making the organization unnecessary.
Learn more at www.girlshelpinggirls-period.org.