- FILLING A NEED: Arkansas Women's Outreach cofounders Katy Simmons (left) and Rachel Achor provide feminine hygiene products to homeless women in Central Arkansas.
When you think of donating to charities that help the homeless, your first thought of what to give might immediately go to things like socks, gloves, coats, secondhand clothes, canned food or sleeping bags. There are, however, items that are rarely donated, but which can add more than you know to the dignity and health of a woman facing life on the streets: pads, tampons and cleansing cloths to help homeless women deal with their periods.
If you just did anything other than nod after reading that sentence, written by a strapping male who will never have to deal with menstruation, you're on your way to understanding why those crucial items aren't donated nearly as often as they should be.
One Central Arkansas group that's working to help provide ready access to feminine hygiene products is Arkansas Women's Outreach. Along with collecting and distributing those badly needed items, they also accept donations of condoms and new women's underwear, and coordinate with local hospitals and clinics to arrange mammograms, HIV and STD testing, mental health intervention and other health screenings for homeless women. In addition to helping women avoid sometimes life-threatening infections that can be caused by using unsanitary substitutes for tampons and pads, the founders say they're helping women find hope.
Arkansas Women's Outreach was started in 2015 by Little Rock residents Katy Simmons and Rachel Achor. After becoming friends on Facebook and noting how their interest in helping the homeless meshed, Simmons and Achor met up at Vino's Brewpub in March 2015 to talk about how they could do more. That meeting led them to reach out to several local organizations that help the homeless, including Our House and The Van. A pattern soon emerged.
"We started hearing that feminine hygiene products are consistently under-donated," Achor said. "No one ever has enough of them — pads, tampons, baby wipes, bras, underwear. All of this stuff that women desperately need, not only for their physical health, but also to overcome the stigma of homelessness."
"We were surprised to find that nothing like Arkansas Women's Outreach existed," Simmons said. "There are a ton of great homeless support systems in Little Rock, incredible organizations that just go above and beyond to help the homeless community, but nothing that specifically addresses women's health and women's hygiene in the homeless community. That's kind of when we decided, 'Hey, we're going to do this.' "
The pair formed a nonprofit and began accepting donations. Their website, arkansaswomensoutreach.org, includes a page where visitors can order items, including condoms and pads, from their Amazon.com wish list, for direct shipping to the charity's post office box.
Simmons and Achor also attend the Wednesday night "dinner and a movie" event at the homeless-friendly Canvas Community Church on Seventh Street in Little Rock, where they speak to women about what they need, distribute supplies and host educators and health professionals.
"We're able to see all the women who come there, and we're able to talk to them about what they're needing," Achor said. "That's how we not only inform what kind of donations we need, [but] we also tailor our educational and health services to that."
Since founding the organization, Achor and Simmons have partnered with Planned Parenthood, the Little Rock Community Mental Health Center and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to provide services and education events at Canvas, including an event a few weeks back in which UAMS brought out a portable mammogram unit. Health care provider ARcare has provided free HIV and STD testing, Simmons said. A partnership between Arkansas Women's Outreach and the Little Rock Community Mental Health Center has counselors visiting with homeless people at Canvas one Wednesday night a month.
"They sit down and do one-on-one discussions with the women and men," Simmons said. "They can't actually hold a formal counseling session, but ... Little Rock Community Mental Health Center will help them find access to transportation and schedule much needed mental health appointments."
Simmons said a recently formed partnership with UAMS will soon see student nurses providing guidance to homeless women about their health concerns. In addition to helping women receive donations and services, Simmons and Achor also distribute condoms and information about safer sex. Simmons said that's important, because they often work with women who are involved in prostitution in order to survive. It's all part, Simmons said, of helping homeless women deal with "the layers of demoralizing situations" to which they are particularly vulnerable.
"Women deal directly with periods and the sex trade and a lot of other topics that people aren't comfortable openly discussing," Simmons said. "I think that it kind of falls to the wayside, because it makes people uncomfortable. What we hope to do is create a space for these women where they can talk to us about women's health issues, where there are no judgments. ... By creating a positive space, and kind of reducing the stress of worrying about what they're going to do when they have their next period, they find hope."
For more information or to donate to Arkansas Women's Outreach, visit arkansaswomensoutreach.org and click the "Take Action" tab. Donations of feminine hygiene products, baby wipes, condoms and new bras and women's underwear can also be dropped off every Wednesday night between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. at Canvas Community Church, 1111 W. Seventh St., Little Rock.