"I began to keep a journal of their stories about using stolen pillowcases, toilet paper, and brown paper grocery bags to maintain their periods. These stories coming from homeless women, who were always nervous to talk about something so stigmatized in our global society, inspired me to learn more."
At 18-years-old, Nadya Okamoto, is the founder and executive director of Camions of Care, a youth-run non-profit which advocates, educates and helps distribute feminine hygiene products nationwide.
Not only has she built a successful non-profit, she has also done a TedX Talk about her charity and it's importance in society. Can we also mention she's off to Harvard in the fall? Nadya, we are so impressed by your go-getter spirit and dedication! #girlswillchangetheworld
Every Ella: Tell us about yourself.
Nadya Okamoto: I’m Nadya, an 18-year-old living in Portland, Oregon with my mom and my two younger sisters. I finished up my last high school classes at the end of April 2016, and this month I am interning full-time at the Nike Headquarters in the Global Stores department. For the last four years I have attended Catlin Gabel High School, and I am getting ready to leave home (live and work in LA for the summer) and start college at Harvard in the fall. I am so grateful for the opportunities that have aligned to make it possible for me to attend college without putting financial stress on my family. I am so grateful to have received the Coca-Cola Scholarship, the ELKS Most Valuable Student Scholarship, and the Gates Millenium Scholarship, among others. In my free time, I love to dance (ballet, modern, and hip hop), fool around on the guitar, play piano, and sing, and spend ample time at the gym watching Rachel Maddow and listening to NPR Politics Podcasts. When I have a day-off, I also enjoy driving up to the mountain and going snowboarding at Mt. Hood Meadows.
You are the founder and Executive Director of Camions of Care. Can you tell us more about COC?
I am the Founder and Executive Director of Camions of Care. COC is a youth-run global nonprofit that strives to manage and celebrate menstrual hygiene through advocacy, education, and service—through the global distribution of feminine hygiene products, and the engagement of youth leadership through a nationwide network of campus chapters. In the last two years, our network of over 1,800 volunteers has distributed over 14,000 care packages to over 38 nonprofit partners in 10 different states and 6 different countries. We continue to expand our chapter network from over 25 established at universities and high schools around the US.
Camions of Care works to make feminine hygiene products more accessible to disenfranchised women and girls all over the world. We want to ensure they have the resources to feel confident, and dignified, and ready to discover and reach their full potential even when they are on their periods. We also work to empower young leaders to start conversations about the importance of menstrual hygiene—in efforts to destigmatize the topic. Camions of Care has a nationwide network of high school and university campus chapters that are entirely led by youth and located at university and high school campuses. Our campus chapters young leaders help start conversations about periods, and spread awareness about the need, engage in development work for the Camions of Care parent organization, and also create their own network of nonprofit partners that they may distribute for the distribution of feminine hygiene products to.
What inspired you to start this program?
During the spring of my freshman year of high school, my family entered a time of transition after my mom lost her job, which involved several months of couch-surfing with our closest friends who are now family. During that time, we were living under the legal label of homeless. My commute to school turned from ten minutes to over two hours long. In the hundreds of hours I spent navigating my way to school, I started talking to homeless women. I would ask them what they found most challenging about their living situation and asked if there was anything that I could do to help. One thing that kept coming up was menstrual hygiene, which surprised me—I had never thought about menstrual hygiene as an issue. I began to keep a journal of their stories about using stolen pillowcases, toilet paper, and brown paper grocery bags to maintain their periods. These stories coming from homeless women, who were always nervous to talk about something so stigmatized in our global society, inspired me to learn more. I discovered in combination with learning about how a lack of menstrual hygiene was hindering girls in global communities from pursuing education and economic opportunities, sparked the idea and drive within me to found Camions of Care.
What are your goals for COC?
If Camions of Care is wildly successful, our organization will no longer be needed because we would have successfully made feminine hygiene products accessible for all women and girls, and made menstruation an open topic for conversation and policy discussions. Realistically, in my lifetime though, my goal is to have an established and distributing chapter-run hub in each state serving the menstrual hygene needs of each state.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
So far, our biggest challenge has been maintaining a strong enough flow of financial contributions to support our exponentially growing distribution rate of feminine hygiene products, and our chapter services and support. It has been really exciting to continue forming new partnerships, and I really hope that we can continue to do this at the rate we are improving now--since these direct services really do make an impact. However, as most grassroots nonprofit start-ups do, we struggle with maintaining a steady flow of financial resources into our organization. Financial contributions go a really long ways with our organization because we barely have any overhead costs, for every two dollars that is donated, at least another care package is made possible.
What has been the most rewarding part of COC?
The most rewarding part of leading Camions of Care has been to hear the stories of either women we serve with our distribution services, or hearing the stories of women in girls in the audience when I give speeches on my story and the mission of Camions of Care. I live for the moments of connecting with women and girls who are eager to tell their stories of managing menstrual hygiene, getting their first period, experiencing homelessness, or dealing with domestic abuse and self-harm. Camions of Care gives people a voice to advocate for something that makes them womanly, and embrace the adversity that they have faced and recognize the potential that they hold int heir hands.
Has there been a specific woman who stands out to you that you have helped?
On the very first drop-off that Camions of Care did, we visited our nonprofit partner and handed out some care packages directly to homeless women who were waiting to be let in to the morning hospitality services. The second woman that I handed a care packages to began to cry when she realized what was in the care package. To her it was empowering, seemingly impossible, and touching that a random human would come up to her with feminine hygiene products--simple items that would take a huge weight off of her shoulders in dealing with sanitation and trying to hide the existence of her period from the world. We were suddenly there to tell her to be proud of her period and love her body and celebrate that her body was working.
You recently did a TedX Talk. What was it about and were you nervous?
On April 9th, 2016, I gave a 13 minute TedxPortland talk at the Keller Auditorium to a sold out house of over 3,000 people. I was extremely nervous, but felt well-prepared. I had been working with the staff of 503, the event production team that was hosting the event, for the last couple months on refining the wording and sharpening my presentation for this moment, so I felt ready to take on the big stage. I stepped out, got lost in my presentation and found comfort in the spotlight with the cameras and eyeballs staring into me, and cried with gratitude and relief on stage at the end as soon as the applause erupted. I did not realize how nervous I was until after the speech when I made my way back to the green room feeling so much more relaxed, and concked out on the couch for the next thirty minutes before the next break. The video from the April 9th talk is going to be released in mid-May 2016. The video from my previous TedxYouth Portland speech from November 2015 is available on Youtube--that was a much smaller venue, but I was still equally nervous.
Name one woman who inspires you.
Heidi O’Neill (President of Global Retail-NIKE). Heidi is my mentor here at Nike this month. Coming into this internship, I was aiming to learn about the retail industry and understand the other side of consumerism. Within the first few hours of my first day, I realized that another integral part of this internship experience is learning from Heidi’s collaborative and empowering leadership style. Her team loves her and people actually take sighs of respect when they talk about how effective and high-quality her work is. During an all-day planning session last week, I ended up having a notebook filled with margin notes taking note of how Heidi geniuinely thanked each team member when they contributed, and gave feedback in a magical way that both validated and inspired the team. Shadowing her and watching how she leads is especially inspiring for me since control and trust with teams is something I struggle with as a leader in all honesty. Heidi is also an amazing mom of two boys, she does it all!
What message or advice would you like to get to girls and women everywhere?
Collaborate! Don’t be afraid to ask for help and delegate tasks that are not in your area of expertise. As an entrepreneur trying to grow a business or organization, there is a tendency to grow a dangerous case of “founder’s syndrome,” in which you feel like you need control or oversee everything your initiative is engaging in. Sometimes, you need to maximize your strengths by letting go and empowering other leaders in efforts to maximize the strengths of yourself and of others for the benefit of your start-up.