Rockland-based grassroots group One Less Worry distributes free menstrual pads, tampons, soap, and other hygiene products to 22 area locations. During the pandemic, OLW quickly became a major player in the local toilet paper scene, scavenging 15,000 rolls of toilet paper for folks in Knox County this year. I interviewed Sharon Hobson, OLW’s director.

Becca: What made you so passionate about getting menstrual items to people?

Sharon Hobson: Six years ago, my friend Rhonda Nordstrom and I began a purse project, now known as the Tote Project. We asked people to find a purse or backpack languishing in their closet and fill it with pads, tampons and grooming products. After distribution to three organizations, we started receiving feedback. What shocked us was the number of stories we received about people in our community struggling to meet their needs for pads and tampons.

There was a mother working to leave an abusive relationship who had to choose between food for her young child and tampons. She cried when she saw the tampons in the tote that had been handed to her. A grandmother with limited resources was raising her 14-year-old granddaughter who had just started her first period. There was no money for pads. There were none at the food pantry. Two rogue diapers were cut into strips for this young girl’s period.

I was angry and sad. There were no reliably available pads and tampons at any of the food pantries, schools, or public restrooms that I was aware of. I was sad that menstruation, this most basic bodily function responsible for each of us being here, was essentially being ignored.

One very important thing I want people to know is that you cannot purchase pads and tampons or any essential non-edibles with SNAP (food stamps)!

After five years, One Less Worry now has pads and tampons in 22 area locations. Still, I occasionally receive dismissive attitudes. These insinuate, “This box of mac and cheese is more important than that box of tampons.” This is not a contest. They can sit side-by-side, equally important.

Becca: “Periods are political.”

Sharon: Nearly every action, or inaction, is political. Fundamentally, you cannot talk about periods without talking about the uterus. Who owns your uterus? Who has power over what comes out of your uterus and when? Who decides how much to tax your uterus when it needs period products? If you don’t think these are political questions, just try inserting “penis” or “sperm” for “uterus.”

This year the State of Maine will receive $1 million in taxes from [period products]. Why hasn’t this tax been removed? Because it is political. A lot of people who do not have periods have decided to behave as if they support removal of the tax on menstrual products — until it arrives in the Appropriations Committee. There it is passively swept under the carpet.

In Maine, the bottle of Allen’s Coffee Brandy you buy is taxed 5.5% and the box of tampons you buy, an essential, is also taxed 5.5%! There is no willingness to remove the tax because many people in power have no motivation to figure out what might offset the $1 million budgetary loss of what they already gain at the expense of Mainers who menstruate. I have an idea. Let’s increase the tax on Allen’s Coffee Brandy and other alcohol at a rate that would offset pads and tampons’ tax loss.

Becca: How does this work intersect with other basic needs of people?

Sharon: We know that if you are struggling to feed your family or keep them warm, the likelihood that you may also be struggling to purchase pads and tampons is high. If you just left an abusive relationship and are in temporary, safe lodging, you may have period needs that you cannot meet. If you are a homeless teen, you may need access to pads and tampons. And if you are a person who is caught by that sudden awareness your period is starting and you had not anticipated it, you are going to need a tampon or pad!

Becca: I saw that OLW is now offering more-environmentally-friendly period catchers, such as reusable menstrual cups.

Sharon: Environmentally friendly period products are one of the things I dream about. A friend of OLW has gifted us some menstrual cups, allowing us to see if there is an audience for them. I love the idea of period panties or washable and reusable pads and would like to experiment with offering them.

Becca: OLW seems to aim for trans- and gender-nonconforming inclusiveness around periods.

Sharon: It is extremely important to OLW to have gender-neutral language. We want everyone to see themselves in periods whether they menstruate or not. You and those you love wouldn’t be here without the uterus. Sometimes it is difficult to tell who is lucky enough to have a uterus!

Becca: In the early days of the Great Toilet Paper Crisis of 2020, you wrote to me, “OMG! Toilet paper … just do not know how I am going to keep up with the demand (and the pricing).” How did OLW come to be a major pandemic toilet paper provider for the area?

Sharon: We provide a mutually-agreed-upon amount of toilet paper monthly [to many area food pantries]. COVID-19 prompted most food pantries to shift to a compassionate, open policy where folks can come as needed. By the end of March, families were coming up to four times a month, significantly increasing the amount of toilet paper that we ended up providing. It was, and is, daunting. By the end of March there was such a dearth of toilet paper, at any price, that simply finding, and affording, toilet paper was a staggering job. OLW’s board, in their astonishingly can-do fashion, stepped up. We all made daily stops at multiple stores searching, hoping for just a roll or two at any price. Some days, we totally failed. The next day one of us might score a 12-pack and we would all celebrate! We woke early and stayed up late scanning the internet for toilet paper. Sheer determination and the support of many made it happen.

Becca: When I went to Camden-Rockport High School in the early ’90s, it was rumored that you could get condoms at school; it was said to involve a secretive plea to the school nurse, all the while fearing the vicious “slut” label. I think OLW gives out condoms sometimes? Also, maybe in 2020, the local schools have them easily and non-shamefully available.

Sharon: OLW is 100% supportive of condoms everywhere. We are ready to provide condoms to locations who would like to offer them. Most of our high schools and many of our middle schools have them available in locations where they can be discreetly accessed. However, we need to stop thinking about condoms as the primary answer [to teen pregnancy and STIs]. They are not. Information is. Young teens have been having sex forever but never have there been more options for contraception. I am astonished by the lack of information and misinformation that young people have. We need to do a better job of empowering all genders to talk about, and act upon, birth control. I wish this happened openly in homes with love and nonjudgmentalness.

Becca: Discuss OLW’s Period Friendly campaign.

Sharon: Half the world’s population has a uterus; 50% of the population averages having their period 3,500 days of their life! Why can’t we talk about this openly without use of euphemisms signaling something is wrong, secretive, or unhygienic about this normal, essential bodily function? Stop hiding your tampons in the linen closet behind the towels! Put them out for all to see. Let’s have free pads and tampons in schools, public restrooms and businesses that care about their clientele. That toilet paper is free! Let’s normalize periods. Let’s embrace periods.

Becca: How have you been able to manage all the time and work involved in the project? Is it still all unpaid?

Sharon: I am going to answer this question as honestly as possible. It isn’t glamorous. Most days I do not “manage” it. It feels like the day wants to manage me. On a good week, I put in 50 to 60 hours of OLW work across seven days. Challenging weeks are closer to 80 hours. Days are packed with an astonishing array of must-dos. I am behind on thank-you notes, which makes me sad and anxious because I want people to know how thankful we are! I fret between 2:15 and 3:30 a.m. Very often I am vulnerable and tender and cry. I meditate.

I am immensely grateful for my husband and my board for hearing me when I am struggling. Without fail they lift me back up. OLW is 100% volunteer. Every nook and cranny in my home is filled with a stack of OLW — I eat every meal looking at a tower of pads and tampons, the living room has stacks of soap and toothpaste, the front door is barricaded with floor-to-ceiling toilet paper. You get used to it.

Becca: What has been one of the most challenging, and one of the most gratifying, moments of engaging in this effort?

Sharon: Truthfully, the most challenging moments for me are encountering forms of judgmentalness. I have heard people remark about a pantry client’s manicure, cell phone, name-brand clothing, smoking, or their car, with scathing remarks. Verbalizing these thoughts seems unnecessarily hurtful and shows little compassion for the complexities of need.

My relationships and time with the people we are serving are the most fulfilling moments. I love the great single dad raising three girls with such heart. We have conversations about the books he and the girls are reading, what foods he is teaching them to cook, menstrual matters, and his worries. I love the woman who has been fighting cancer for years. We talk about how her treatment affects what she is able to eat and her hunger level. And we talk about our grandchildren. One senior gentleman stopped me at the USDA Commodity Supplemental Food pickup. “Hey, toilet paper lady! Thank you. I really needed this toilet paper. I was all out. These are the kind of things that will turn this world around.” I wrote his words on a piece of paper and taped them to the wall by my desk as a simple reminder.

COVID-19 has reduced the time for interaction I have with beautiful people like these. I look forward to returning to the warm hugs we shared!

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Pads and tampons from OLW are available at AIO Food and Energy Assistance, Come Spring Food Pantry, Jefferson Area Food Pantry, St. George Community Cupboard, and Thomaston Inter-Church Fellowship Food Pantry. You do not have to be a client; just show up during pantry open hours and ask for them. OLW also provides pads and tampons to area schools, available in the nurse’s office. Rockland Public Library has free pads and tampons in the non-gendered bathroom off the children’s area. If you have difficulty accessing these locations, email onelessworry.maine@gmail.com.

You can support OLW by telling others about it and joining the One Less Worry Facebook page to stay informed about their work, needs and volunteer opportunities. They accept donations of pads, tampons, toilet paper, soap, or toothpaste by mail or drop-off at their porch bin at 108 Beech Street, Rockland, ME 04841. Email onelessworry.maine@gmail.com for a complete list of needs, or see their Amazon wish list. Financial contributions can be sent to One Less Worry at the address above or via onelessworry.me.