Lawrence teen working to address basic problem that local homeless women face

Free State High School junior Taylor Hamby, pictured here at last month's SHE Expo in Lawrence, recently launched Fe-Flow, a project that aims to provide local homeless and low-income women with reusable, washable sanitary pads. Hamby, who started the project as part of an extracurricular competition, says homeless women often lack access to basic feminine care products, which leads to infection and other health issues.

Talking about menstruation can be uncomfortable for some. Getting your period while homeless — even more uncomfortable, and, oftentimes, deeply shameful, unhealthy and unsafe.

One Lawrence teen is working toward changing that reality for her community’s low-income and homeless population, fueled by the idea that everyone deserves access to basic hygiene.

“It wasn’t something that really came to mind, and then when I started researching, I figured out this is a problem,” says Taylor Hamby, a junior at Free State High School. “I thought, this is what I want to do so I can raise awareness and get people to talk about it and get people to help.”

Before launching her Re-Flow project back in August, Hamby never thought of feminine care products as the kind of necessities you might include in a box of donations to the local shelter, she says. But, for those who live in poverty, these items can be difficult to come by.

The office of California state assemblywoman Cristina Garcia recently calculated that California women, for example, spend roughly $7 every month on sanitary products like pads and tampons. These items aren’t covered by food stamps and in most states are considered “luxury” items subject to sales taxes.

The price of having a period weighs even more heavily on low-income and homeless women, who risk cervical cancer (high rates in India have been linked to poor menstrual hygiene) and crippling infections without access to feminine care products.

“A lot of them will use old rags that they don’t wash, or some will use tree bark or use tampons for hours and hours, which will then cause infections and toxic shock syndrome,” Hamby says.

Hamby, 16, began collecting bedsheets, towels and washcloths about three months ago as part of an upcoming competition with her school’s FCCLA (Family, Career and Community Leaders of America) chapter.

She plans on turning the scraps into reusable sanitary pads to be distributed to local shelters, food pantries and women’s organizations, and is asking the community for help in reaching her goal.

Hamby says reusable pads provide a more eco-friendly solution than simply giving away store-bought products.

Cash-strapped homeless women are also more likely to use disposable tampons for unsafe lengths of time, leaving them vulnerable to toxic shock syndrome and other health problems, says Hamby, who wants to provide as many women as possible with at least two or three washable pads each.

On Wednesday, the teen will host a “pad-cutting party” from 6 to 8 p.m. at Free State High School, 4700 Overland Drive, in rooms 210 and 211. Hamby says she has another event, for sewing together the pads, scheduled on Nov. 28 at the same time and place.

She hopes to make at least 500 pads to give away to local organizations. She’ll need help cutting the fabric and sewing them up, and also in purchasing plastic snaps (at least $100 worth) to attach on the pad wings.

What started as a school extracurricular project has evolved into something much bigger for Hamby. The service-oriented teen plans on running her own mission-trip organization someday, possibly continuing her Re-Flow work in developing countries across the world.

Her efforts, for now, remain wholly local. Part of Hamby’s mission is bringing awareness to a problem that remains taboo, not just in third-world countries but right here in her own backyard.

Even Hamby felt “awkward” discussing her FCCLA project at first, she says. She hopes Re-Flow might create a conversation where there wasn’t one before.

“One of the other reasons why I want to get the community involved is so they know about it,” Hamby says. “Even if they can’t come and help out, it makes them aware of it.”

For more information on Hamby’s project, visit the “Re-Flow: Washable Sanitary Pads” page on Facebook.