New health center on Chicago’s South Side aims to end ‘period poverty’

The Gyrls in the H.O.O.D. Foundation has opened a new health services center on Chicago’s South Side.

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Venisha Bonds Gyrls in the H.O.O.D. operations manager, Destiny Walker volunteer and Chez Smith, Gyrls in the H.O.O.D. founder stand in front of a mural at the nonprofit’s new center to help end ‘period poverty.’

Venisha Bonds, Gyrls in the H.O.O.D. operations manager, volunteer Destiny Walker and founder Chez Smith at the nonprofit’s new health services center at 605 E. 71st St.

Araceli Gómez-Aldana/WBEZ

Five years ago, Chez Smith drove around Chicago’s South Side in a red minivan she called the “hood-mobile.” She passed out tampons and pads while providing reproductive health education.

“We were out on the street, on bus stops outside of schools. We would provide services out in the open,” Smith said.

Now the Gyrls in the H.O.O.D. Foundation founder has opened a center for girls and women on East 71st Street to provide those same services. Smith opened it to end what’s known as “period poverty,” when a person who is menstruating cannot afford or doesn’t have access to menstrual hygiene products.

“We have partnerships with some of the schools in the community. We met girls where they were. Now five years later, we are able to be in our own space,” Smith said.

The center is a former mail drop-off location that is now decorated with crystal chandeliers and a marbled glossy silver-and-purple floor. Smith said before the center opened, she served 20 to 30 girls a month. She wants to increase that number to 100.

“I know girls are missing days of school because of their period, or they use newspaper or paper towels and then they have an accident at school,” Smith said. “Then they have to be sent home, and if they ruin their uniform pants and if mom is struggling to make ends meet, you might have to wait two weeks to get her check to buy more uniform pants for you to go back to school. Or you might have to wait for her to buy underwear. Those are days that they miss school.”

A month’s supply of menstrual hygiene products costs $7 to $10. According to Harvard Health Publishing, 22 million women living in poverty in the U.S. cannot afford pads and tampons. For teens nationally, nearly one in four students struggle to afford period products, according to the nonprofit PERIOD.

Venisha Bonds, the center’s operations manager, said the health service center provides more than feminine hygiene products. It provides support to teen girls.

“You can kind of tell what the person is in need of. Is it your living situation, or are you in need of something to eat?” Bonds said. “You can kind of just gauge that, and then you can move on to other things because then they’ll be like, ‘Oh, well I didn’t eat yesterday or we didn’t get our benefits.’ So we get them something to eat or clothes.”

But it’s not always easy to get the girls to talk about what is going on in their lives, so Bonds has developed a strategy. She greets every girl that walks into the center with a hug.

“When you greet them with a smile and a hug, it really breaks down that barrier. They’re not afraid to talk, they’re not afraid to share,” Bonds said. “When you include them, it makes them feel like they’re part of your family.”

Young parents can receive baby products, diapers and donated car seats. They can also get information about parenting classes or workshops.

Smith said most teens come in for a “H.O.O.D. kit,” which has hygiene products, pads, tampons, underwear and some extras like lotions or body sprays.

The center will also provide pregnancy tests, emergency contraception, reproductive and sexual health education and social services through the organization’s existing programs.

Smith said she wants to expand and deliver job training workshops and college prep. She wants the center to be a place where they can hold events, or simply be a place where girls can go in and ask questions — or just hang out.

With the new center, Smith is also trying to combat negative stereotypes about young girls growing up and living on the South Side.

“People may say that you are ghetto, you’re vulgar. There are low expectations set on the girls,” Smith said. “These girls read the comments that are on social media. They internalize that and when you tell someone something over and over again, they tend to believe it.”

Smith wants the Gyrls in the H.O.O.D. Foundation to counter those beliefs.

“We’re not letting ZIP codes get in the way. They just need help to navigate what’s out here because our communities are not invested in, in a way that they should be,” Smith said.

Gyrls in the H.O.O.D. Reproductive Health Services Center is at 605 E. 71st St. Chicago, IL. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Araceli Gómez-Aldana is a reporter and host at WBEZ. Follow her@Araceli1010.

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