MUSC pediatric residents win prestigious grant to help fight period poverty

July 18, 2023
White sanitary pads, stack of pink pads, stack of orange pads, jar of tampons wrapped in green.
A poll found that of 1,000 girls and young women ages 13 to 19 in the United States, two-thirds felt stress about having access to period products. iStock

Charleston-area teacher Melissa Soule has seen period poverty firsthand. Her life hasn’t always been easy. “There was one shelter that I was in as a kid, a women's shelter. The director came out, and she had one box of tampons and said, ‘Who needs tampons today?’ And the entire place, like, rushed her. That just sat with me for like the longest time.”

Soule is now president of the Lowcountry Period Pixies, an organization that collects sanitary pads and tampons to give to girls and women who can’t afford them. There are never enough to go around, she said. 

So Soule was thrilled when three pediatric residents from MUSC Children’s Health got in touch to say they’d been awarded a grant from the organization Community Access to Child Health to fund a period poverty project. “I was shocked that they knew who we were,” she said, laughing.

Melanie Gray, M.D., Ashley Perdue, M.D., and Sarah Olson, M.D., knew very well who the Lowcountry Period Pixies were. They’ve earned their medical degrees and are getting further hands-on training in pediatrics. Like Soule, they’ve seen the difficulty some of their patients have affording sanitary supplies. And they knew Soule’s organization was doing what it could to help.

So they came up with a plan to join her, approaching the effort from a scientific point of view. They’d survey young women to see what they know about menstruation and develop educational material to be included in packs of free period products. 

Then, they’d do another survey, this one involving young women who got the educational materials to see if they made a difference in their understanding of the menstrual cycle. They want not only to get supplies into girls and women’s hands but also end the stigma surrounding discussion of the body and periods.

Through the Lowcountry Period Pixies, the doctors will work directly with North Charleston High School and the Shifa Clinic in Mount Pleasant. The nonprofit Shifa Clinic offers free health care with a multilingual, multicultural approach. 

Three young women with long hair wearing white doctors' coats smile for a photo. 
From left, doctors Sarah Olson, Ashley Perdue and Melanie Gray

“Those were two sites that were identified by the Lowcountry Period Pixies as higher-need locations where they already are working with them, but they just have a higher need than they're able to keep up with,” Gray said.

“So we are going to partner specifically with those two sites and deliver supplies in person and kind of see how things work in terms of distributing them. And then, it'll also be helpful in terms of giving out the educational materials in person,” Gray said. They hope to help at least 200 young women at the high school and clinic.

Perdue said they’ve learned a lot already. “I knew that period poverty was an issue. But doing more research, I realized it's a bigger issue than I realized. It can lead to missed days of school and work for young women.”

In their grant proposal, she and her colleagues cited a Harris Insights & Analytics Poll that found that of 1,000 girls and young women ages 13 to 19 in the United States, two-thirds felt stress about having access to period products, 20% struggled to afford them and 25% have missed school because they didn’t have what they needed. A majority also thought that periods have negative connotations, such as “being gross or unsanitary.”

Gray said too many girls are left to figure out how to handle menstruation on their own. “In talking to girls, it becomes immediately clear that no one's really talked to them about their period or their menstrual cycle, and no one's helped them either access supplies or know how to use them.”

Olson said they hope to have a lasting impact. “We’ll be creating the tangible materials that we pass out, but we’ll also come up with educational material for the website,” she said, referring to the Lowcountry Period Pixies’ site. 

“We want people to have long-term access to information, and we want to use our platform as residents and physicians to make it easier for different people in the community to get access to those things. We also want to make it something we prioritize within our residency program.”

It’s an attitude they’ll carry well beyond their time at MUSC Children’s Health. “I think we're all very mindful of our role as pediatricians, especially going into primary care, like how important it is for us to be involved in the community and be mindful of every aspect of our patients’ lives and what's contributing to their health,” Gray said.

Soule, the Lowcountry Period Pixies’ leader, is glad to hear that. The need for period products and education is huge and ongoing. “When we did math, when we were like trying to figure it out, we distributed like a half a million products a year. That's just us, you know? And there's always a demand. Every month we're like, ‘I don't know if we're going to meet this demand.’”

Get the Latest MUSC News

Get more stories about what's happening at MUSC, delivered straight to your inbox.