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Forest Grove High School group raises money, fights p-word stigma with award-winning club

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Forest Grove High School students Heather Monahan, Sarah Ornelas and Katy Schlesser and Gales Meadow Farm volunteer Mike Dineley get ready to pass out feminine hygiene bags to women along the Eastbank Esplanade and other areas of Portland after providing a home-cooked meal to homeless people last July.Seventeen-year-old students Heather Monahan and Ellie Vilhauer are challenging "period fear" at Forest Grove High School and helping women in need.

The teens started a chapter of Period as a club at the school last year. The national nonprofit distributes menstrual hygiene products to women living on the streets.

Ultimately, and inadvertently, the duo has slowly changed the stigmas both students and some staff associated with the word "period."

Heather's father, Steve, planted the idea in her head after he came across an information booth from the nonprofit.

She was interested but initimidated.

"I felt overwhelmed to think about how many people are out there and how many people are not helping. How could I help anybody? It seemed silly to think I could change this system of ignoring people in need," said Heather.

But an August 2016 speech at Portland's Moda Center by Malala Yousafszai, a young Pakistani activist for women's rights, filled the Gales Creek teen with the fervor she needed.

"I realized I should just do it."

School gets on board

With Ellie's help, the two got the club approved by the school administration, with one little hitch when they submitted a schoolwide announcement using the word "period."

They wanted to use the phrase "Interested in breaking the stigma of periods?" in the morning intercom announcements.

But after three days of the announcement mysteriously not being broadcast, Heather said, she talked to her adviser, Oralia Najera, who had apparently been told the club couldn't use the word in the announcement.

Heather said she and Ellie appealed to Principal Karen O'Neill, who said it was fine for the club to use the word "period" in flyers or signs but it might be uncomfortable for people listening to announcements.NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Lillian Neidiver, Heather Monahan, Katy Schlesser and Ellie Vilhauer hope to get student involvement for the Period Club during a Club Rush event at Forest Grove High School.

O'Neill told the News-Times a few staff members had voiced concerns about the word so she discussed other possible wordings with the girls, who agreed to change "period" to "menstruation."

"Other than that, everything went smoothly and the club was a great success," O'Neill said.

That March, when the national group changed its name from Campions of Care to "PERIOD: the menstrual movement," the school finally allowed the announcement to use the word "period."

"I think they just warmed up to the idea," Heather said.

In every other way, the school has been supportive, she said.

At the end of the year, the club won the school's National Club of the Year award (for clubs that are chapters of national organizations).

"They are a fantastic club that has the whole support of ASB, our administration and the high school," said FGHS Activities Director Andrew Garrett.

Initial embarrassment

That fall Heather and Ellie set up a table at the school's Club Rush event, when clubs gather in the cafeteria to find volunteers. Both girls were nervous.

"It was hard at the beginning," said Heather, because periods "were just a scary thing to be so open about."NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Heather Monahan speaks to a fellow student about the club.

On the table they set out a bowl filled with chocolate and a bowl filled with pads and tampons.

"A lot of people were really embarrassed to see that. There were some silly boys who would take them as a joke and throw them on the floor," said Ellie.

But the reception wasn't entirely disheartening because they also found a lot of people were interested in the cause. Now, the club has between 20 to 30 active volunteers and they've given away thousands of tampons and pads to homeless women on Portland's streets.

"It was really cool to me to be able to take this club that I'm working on at school and use it as a way to make a difference in my community," said Ellie.

Club members fundraised all the hygiene materials they distribute at different events and spend time each week bagging the items in paper sacks, even putting little messages inside. Once a month, they take the bags and distribute them in downtown Portland.

The first time the club went to Portland they were apprehensive. After all, they were a group of young girls distributing something controversial in public.

But all they encountered on the streets was gratitude, an experience that validated their efforts — and they've found more and more support at the school.

"As people got used to the idea, everyone stopped being so embarrassed about it and they were able to open up and help," said Ellie.

Heather said the project has helped her challenge her own fears around being open about periods, too.

"I think a lot of people are more comfortable with the topic of menstruation at the school now."

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