International Women's Day Story

Hey! My journalism class is joining classes all over the world this Wednesday, sharing our stories to showcase the RAD things women do. Because it's our day! 

I was lucky enough to meet with Rachel Schneider, who told me all about her nonprofit, The Pad Project. I'd love if you read and share her story so that we can show the world women are worth celebrating today and every day.

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University Student Launches Sustainable Menstrual Health Initiative for Homeless Milwaukee Women

By Sophie Bolich

Sometimes it takes traveling across the world to recognize an issue affecting your own community.

Rachel Schneider, a senior psychology major at Marquette University, was inspired to start her nonprofit for homeless women in Milwaukee, The Pad Project, while studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa.

Girls from Imbasa Primary School in Cape Town holding their donated pads and other hygienic supplies

Girls from Imbasa Primary School in Cape Town holding their donated pads and other hygienic supplies

“When I was studying abroad last spring in South Africa, I was placed in a school with a mentor and teacher named Mama Zana,” said Schneider, a Bloomington, Minnesota native. “One day a girl came over and asked Mama Zana for a ‘biscuit,’ and Mama Zana went to a little desk and pulled out a pad and gave it to her, but it was all very secretive.”

A lot of the school girls don’t have access to hygiene products, and are sometimes driven to use toilet paper, cloth scraps, or old newspaper instead, she said. These alternatives are uncomfortable and can cause infections.

Mama Zana took it upon herself to help the girls by collecting and distributing pads donated by Always Feminine Products.

“[The topic of menstruation is] not very talked about in South Africa, so I thought it was really cool that Mama Zana was so ahead of the game,” said Schneider.

After returning from abroad in late June, Schneider’s service learning program continued with slight modifications.

“I now had the task of taking the social justice issues we confronted in Cape Town and applying them here in Milwaukee,” she said.

Schneider’s research revealed that Milwaukee and Cape Town face many of the same issues surrounding menstrual health.

“A lot of people think this is only an issue people in developing countries face, but this is something all women face,” she said. “Our periods are stigmatized. There’s so many issues surrounding it.”

Schneider’s first project was a pad donation drive in May at her high school, Academy of Holy Angels, and her roommate, Jenna Severson’s high school, Rockford High School. The drives collected 7,500 products for donation to the Imbasa Primary School. Though Schneider and Severson were still in Cape Town at the time, their school faculty and members of their family helped to organize the event.

Schneider and Mama Zana at Imbasa Primary School

Schneider and Mama Zana at Imbasa Primary School

Schneider spent the summer researching and brainstorming, and is now in the process of launching a nonprofit organization, Zana, in collaboration with Marquette University faculty members and a group of undergraduate students.

The team includes Father Nicholas Santos, a Jesuit at the university, lending his expertise in marketing, finance and business; adviser Kelsey Otero of Marquette’s Office of Research and Innovation, also specializing in marketing. Undergraduates Lexie Athis, David Dalton, Elodie Demmon, Justine Shanner and Zac Wiershem make up the rest of the TPP team.

The Pad Project team is also planning to partner with the chemistry department to implement design features using natural agents that would make the product antimicrobial, antibacterial, stain-resistant and odor-protectant. For now, Schneider says the team is busy researching size and material for the product.

Schneider opted for reusable products due to their practicality for both her business plan and the environment.

“Many other nonprofits [who use disposable products] don’t receive enough donations for women in need to make it through their period each month,” said Schneider. “This system causes the women to constantly be worrying where their next tampon or pad will come from. However, a reusable product, like the period underwear TPP is designing, lasts for up to five years.”

According to Mariah Frank, a Marquette University senior, homeless shelters are always low on underwear, because it cannot be donated used. As a result, many homeless people go without, which makes it even more difficult for women to use disposable pads, even if they have access to some.

Besides cost-effectiveness, reusable products are better for the environment. According to an article from The Guardian, “the average woman uses roughly 11,000 tampons [or pads] in her lifetime.” Not only does this create tons of waste that does not decompose for centuries, but the manufacturing process of these products, using plastic, paper and cardboard, “is both resource and chemical intensive.”

“The environment holds a really special place in my heart,” said Schneider. “I’d say that’s one of the most important issues to me. Reusable products are also more cost effective. There’s really no drawbacks.”

Eventually, TPP aims to employ homeless women to produce their product.

“We [the TPP team] feel that a lot of times homeless people are provided resources, but not provided opportunities,” said Schneider. “A professor I had in South Africa told me, ‘You know you’ve done a good job when you leave and they say we did it ourselves,’ and that really stuck with me and inspired my choices.”

“The overarching goal is for menstrual health to be addressed,” she added. “I’d rather be able to provide something that can start and be carried on by women by themselves, than to just provide supplies and leave.”

TPP Branches Flowchart

TPP Branches Flowchart

A multifaceted organization, TPP’s goals are menstrual health resources for every woman in the Milwaukee community, female empowerment and ending the stigma around periods.                                                             

 “It’s so bizarre to think that something so natural, something that is the reason we’re all here on earth, is something that we don’t talk about,” said Schneider.

Though the nonprofit is just starting out, Schneider says she has big plans for the future, and is especially thankful to her original inspiration, Mama Zana.

“Right now we’re in the process of trying to get the word out,” said Schneider. “I owe it all to Mama Zana, and the amazing support that the team has received from Marquette.”