SisterFriend founder looks to provide feminine products, education
A young girl walks into Rachel Short’s office at Pittsburgh Colfax K-8 School in Squirrel Hill.
The school nurse knows what the student wants before either says a word.
“I know ‘the look,’” Short says. “I nod my head, and she knows where to go for the supplies she needs.”
She goes towards the SisterFriend closet, a place which has feminine hygiene products for periods. It’s a comforting area for those who might not be able to afford these items or might not have them on hand when they need them.
“Periods come monthly,” Short says as she receives a supply of pads from the founder of SisterFriend, Tamara Abney, on a recent school day. “Women bleed. It’s life. Some girls just walk in, and the minute I see them, I just know why they’ve come to my office. No words need to be spoken.”
However, it does need to be talked about, Abney says. There is a lot of silence when it comes to discussing menstrual cycles and feminine hygiene.
“I am really trying to break the stigma, and create more advocacy to get something in a budget for these products,” says Abney, founder of SisterFriend, as she stood outside of Pittsburgh Colfax K-8. “I would love to see these products available in every school, government building, recreation center, food pantry, office – wherever they are needed.”
She started the company four years ago in her home. When the boxes of tampons, pads, feminine wipes, bras and panties took over her house, she found a warehouse in the Strip District.
Lorita Gillespie of Ross came by the storage unit to pick up some items. She had heard about SisterFriend and took some supplies with her to help people in need, some of whom live on the streets.
“Periods don’t stop because you are homeless,” Gillespie says. “Nature will show up month after month.”
Abney of Pittsburgh’s North Side also makes deliveries in her car. She hopes to eventually have a mobile unit so she can take the products wherever they are needed.
The business survives with the help of grants and donations, but there is so much more to do, she says. She hosts quarterly meet-ups where volunteers pack products in brown bags. With the school year drawing to a close, it’s important there are other places girls can access what they need.
Abney has developed relationships with community organizations to get the word out. People also find her through social media.
It’s in the bag
On the recent stop at Pittsburgh Colfax, Abney brought SisterFriend kits to Short. For elementary schools, the packets contain enough pads for one week. She also brings along bras and panties, which are often needed.
There is a note of encouragement in each bag. The bags are sealed with a sticker, bearing the SisterFriend logo and the website.
“The items are in brown bags so the girls can carry them around discreetly and throw them in a locker or knapsack,” she says.
A stressful situation
“If you don’t have a tampon or a pad (when your period starts), it can be embarrassing,” Abney says. “I have never had to worry about having the proper supplies, but I know there are women who don’t have the proper supplies.”
Abney knew this was an issue when she worked as an independent contractor for Bethlehem Haven, an organization that provides shelter, housing and services to vulnerable women in Allegheny County. Pads and tampons were not items people donated.
“Having your period shouldn’t be a barrier to getting an education,” Abney says. “Not having supplies is more than just taking care of a physical need, it can affect one’s mental state. It’s about dignity and self- respect.”
Would prefer a tampon verses a drop of blood (which could stand for a number of things). But at least it’s adding to the overall conversation of menstrual access. FYI women aren’t the only people that have periods.
Women finally get a menstruation emoji https://t.co/Iocal7j6Sg
— SisterFriend (@sisterfriendorg) February 7, 2019
Education is key
Abney also hosts talks with girls about the menstrual cycle.
“As adults, we take it for granted that girls know,” she says. “It’s an important part of health education.”
She came up with the name because girls can often confide in a sister or a friend.
“You usually ask a friend or sister, ‘Hey, do you have a pad or tampon?’” Abney says. “It’s a question you feel comfortable asking someone close to you.”
Darlene Powell, a board member from Bridgeville, has been involved with SisterFriend since the beginning. She is the treasurer and helps with strategic planning and applying for grants.
“When Tamara told me about what she wanted to do, her mission spoke to me,” Powell says. “There could very well be a girl who doesn’t have access to these products who might miss an entire week of school because of that. I want to help Tamara advocate for these young girls and women and bring the focus to the forefront.”
According to the website, SisterFriend aims to support menstrual hygiene management for vulnerable women and girls through the following programs and services:
• Partnering with organizations and individuals to directly distribute menstrual hygiene products
• Raising awareness of menstrual hygiene issues through our advocacy initiatives
• Providing leadership opportunities to young women in our community.
Tampons and pads are necessities just like soap and shampoo, she says. “They are not luxury items.”
“The goal is to get them to anyone who needs them, “ Abney says. “I hope people will look at us as resource.”
JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact JoAnne at 412-320-7889, [email protected] or via Twitter .