Providing dignity and relief in a $10 bag

Jessica Zachs, Jennifer Schwartzman and Jessica Slater at a Dignity Grows packing session. Dignity Grows will be holding a “Giving Thanks” packing session on Nov. 29 to assemble 2,000 totes. For more information, please contact jschwartzman@jewishhartford.org or visit www.dignitygrows.org.

With all the critical charitable investment that goes into providing disadvantaged populations with basic needs like food and clothing, one critical component has been falling through the cracks of our social safety net: Meeting the need for feminine hygiene products.

According to the University of Michigan School of Public Health website, one of five teens in the United States miss school days because they do not have access to tampons and sanitary napkins. And a study of low-income women in St. Louis, published in the February 2019 edition of Obstetrics and Gynecology, found that 64 percent could not afford menstrual hygiene supplies at some point during 2018, 21 percent of the women suffered this problem each month and 46 percent had to choose between buying food or menstrual products.

In short, many women are suffering silently with “Period Poverty,” a prevalent condition of being unable to afford products such as pads, tampons or liners to manage menstrual bleeding. In lieu of sanitary products, many are forced to use items like rags, paper towels, toilet paper, or cardboard, according to the research.

“People may not realize that not being able to afford menstrual hygiene products causes girls to miss school and women to stay home from work, which further exacerbates the cycle of poverty,” says Jessica Zachs, of West Hartford, the volunteer founder and chairperson of Dignity Grows. “They feel ashamed and often just decide to not go out in public.”

Launched 18 months ago in collaboration with the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford’s Women’s Philanthropy division, Dignity Grows provides monthly personal and menstrual hygiene products to women, girls and individuals assigned female at birth, who cannot afford them.

Working with partners throughout the local community, Dignity Grows procures, organizes, assembles and distributes free of charge, discreet tote bags filled with a month’s supply of personal and menstrual hygiene products. “Our goal is to enhance self-esteem and health through the security and comfort of having personal and feminine hygiene essentials each and every month,” says Zachs.

Since its inception, Dignity Grows has distributed over 5,000 totes to its mosaic of distribution partners, which get them into the hands of people who need them most. Partners include: The Boys & Girls Clubs of Hartford, Anja Rosenberg Kosher Food Pantry at Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford, CWEALF: Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund, Grace Lutheran Church Food Line, Hartford Public Schools, Hartford Gay & Lesbian Health Collective, Manchester Community College Food Pantry, Charter Oak Cultural Center, and more.

Still, much of Dignity Grows’ work is powered by grassroots volunteers. This is evidenced in one of the packing events held a few weeks ago in the Solomon Schechter Day School gym, where about 15 women were busy assembling 1,500 totes that include a month’s supply of sanitary pads and tampons, toothpaste and a toothbrush, a bar of soap, deodorant and shampoo. All products are new and wrapped both for dignity and safety.

“People are really wanting to do something good during the pandemic and this was my way of getting involved and helping,” said volunteer Lindsey Carlisle between packing Dignity Grows totes. “I see people on the streets every day asking for money and this is a great way to help those in need.” Carlisle says she’s hoping to get her church involved in the project.

“There are so many needs in our community, but it seems the need for hygiene products is lost amid all the other needs,” said Dignity Grows volunteer Lori Flacks. “This is something meaningful I can do, together with some really great people.”

Flacks says she is “amazed” at the progress Dignity Grows has achieved in such a short amount of time.

Zachs credits the organization’s mission and model for its growing appeal. “This is a need that really resonates with women, and something they can really can wrap their hands around,” she says.

And keeping the cost of each Dignity Tote under $10 — about the cost of 2 Starbucks grandes — makes it easy for people to contribute something tangible to the cause. “The majority of gifts to us range between $10 and $30,” says Zachs, who is also a major charitable supporter of Dignity Grows. “So for just $10 anyone can provide a neighbor with a month’s supply of hygiene products.”

Responding to their distribution partners’ advice to expand the project, Dignity Grows also offers Dignity Totes for men by substituting disposable razors and shaving cream for the feminine products. “One gentleman said, ‘Now that I can shave, maybe it’ll help me get a job,’” Zachs said. “Can you believe that a 14 cent razor can potentially make that much of a difference?”

Encouraged by the way our local community has adopted this project, Zachs and the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford recently decided to share the Dignity Grows model with other Jewish Federations around the country. It quickly gained the support of the Jewish Federations of North America, the national umbrella of Jewish Federations.

Zachs reports that eight Federations have already signed on to create local chapters, with 10 more expressing interest.

Surveying the assembly operation, Zachs points to a mother-daughter team packing totes. She becomes even more animated. “Look, this has nothing to do with politics, culture or religion, but all about tikkun olam (repairing the world) and making sure people have the basics they need to live,” she says. “And what better way is there to show your kids how important and easy it is to help people than by doing this with them?”

Dignity Grows will be holding a “Giving Thanks” packing session on Nov. 29 to assemble 2,000 totes. For more information, please contact jschwartzman@jewishhartford.org or visit www.dignitygrows.org. To make an online donation, go to www.jewishhartford.org/dignity-grows-donations.

Connecticut Media Group