When Nadya Okamoto got the idea to start a non-profit that would provide period products to homeless women, she was ready to make a major change. Though she was just 16 years old, Okamoto had just gotten out of an abusive relationship, “where sexual assault was a pretty regular part of my life, and I really understood what it felt like not to be heard,” she tells PEOPLE. “To be able to start a non-profit where people were listening felt like a pretty exciting deal to me.”
Talking to women living in homeless shelters inspired her to start the non-profit named, simply, Period. During her commute to school, “we would change buses in Old Town Portland where there are about 10 homeless shelters in a two-block radius,” Okamoto, now 20, says. “I would connect with these homeless women who are in much worse living situations then I was in, and I was hearing their stories of using toilet paper, socks, brown bags, cardboard to take care of their periods.”
Those conversations helped Okamoto understand period inequality.
“It created this sort of unhealthy obsession with periods for a little while,” she says. “I learned that periods are the number one reason why girls miss school in developing countries, and that leads to them dropping out of school or marrying early. And then in the US, around 40 states at the time had taxes on period products, because they’re considered luxury items. That’s what led me into this period work.”
At first, Okamoto’s friends laughed off the idea of starting a non-profit while a junior in high school, but along with a friend, she pushed through.
“I think it was daunting, because I was getting a lot of ‘no’s,” she says. “It was something that taught me a lot of resilience, but I think I was ready.”
Along with Googling “how to start a non-profit” and “what’s a board of directors,” Okamoto started talking to anyone who would listen about her idea, and applied to pitch competitions for funding. Period eventually earned a few small start-up grants, and they were able to make donation packs with period products to distribute to homeless shelters.
These days, Period’s reach is enormous — in just three years, they’ve addressed over 380,000 periods with their period packs, and now have 250 high school and college chapters that help them with distribution and with lobbying for period legislation, like repealing taxes on feminine hygiene products. They also have partnerships with Kotex, Tampax and Diva Cup to get products to women in need.
“We’re trying to change the way that people think and talk about periods,” Okamoto says.
And in between leading the non-profit, attending Harvard University (though she’s now taking a year off) and running for city council in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Okamoto found time to write a new book out Tuesday, called Period Power.
“I want the book to be a tangible way of declaring that the menstrual movement is a real thing, that were actually seeing this global movement for equitable access to period products and changing the way that people talk and think about periods,” she says. “This isn’t just about students rallying anymore — this is a real social movement that’s pushing for systemic change too.”