At 17, Helen Wood was a single mum living in a homeless shelter with her daughter. They weren’t allowed visitors, and had to get permission to go elsewhere. She moved into a council flat after a year, provided with a loan of less than £600 to furnish her whole flat. Whilst trying to pay it back, she lived off £60 a week. She put herself through college, working several jobs, and got a HNC in Computing. After the loss of her mother and a divorce, she left her difficult job as a receptionist, and found herself struggling again, working two jobs to pay the bills. Now in her 40s, Helen lives in her own home, has a HNC in Electrical Engineering, works for BAE, is a keen runner, and has recently set up her own branch of a community organisation. “I never looked back,” she says. Her inspiring story is testament to that fact that no matter where you come from, you can give back to your community. I caught up with Helen to talk about how she got to where she is, the Red Box Project organisation, and how you too can take initiative in your own community.
The Red Box Project sponsors and stocks boxes full of pads and tampons for primary and secondary schools. The boxes also include plain paper bags and spare underwear. Girls who can’t afford to buy the products themselves, are caught out unexpectedly, or don’t want to tell their parents, can make use of these boxes, which are discreetly placed within the school. Schools themselves might provide sufficient sanitary products for emergencies, but they can’t help girls throughout their entire period. “There haven’t been any proper studies,” Helen says, “but there is evidence that girls are sometimes missing out on a proper education because of their period.” Whilst we are, as a society, aware of this problem in developing countries, we do not expect to find it in our own. “I read an article about a police officer who was investigating truancy,” Helen said “and it turned out all these girls were missing school because they were on their periods and didn’t have access to proper sanitary products. It’s like it says on one of the collection boxes in the hospital. You wouldn’t believe this would happen in our town.”
Helen was chatting on a Facebook group for runners when she first came across the Red Box Project. It had been set up in Portsmouth by three of her fellow runners, and Helen was immediately drawn to the idea. “Girls are missing school because of their periods,” she said. “It’s not something you expect in the UK.” She got to work setting up a local division of the Red Box Project in Barrow-in-Furness. Red Box Projects are now springing up all over the UK.
Like anyone else, when Helen first decided to set up her own branch of a community organisation, she didn’t know where to start. The first thing she did was speak to people who could give her advice. She asked the women who had set up the Portsmouth division for a basic model of how to run the project. She then went for coffee with a friend who is a local councillor and school governor, for advice on school contacts.
At first, the Red Box Project Barrow didn’t take off. Helen sent out an email to the largest local school, but received no response. People seemed interested, but rarely provided the actual support needed to get to project going. An investment scheme within Helen’s workplace fell through. Then she got in contact with her local Foodbank. “It was when I first went to the Foodbank,” Helen said, “that the scheme really took off.” The Foodbank served as a collection point for the sanitary products, but also provided a communications network, publicity, and a set of dedicated volunteers.
Within days, Helen’s Facebook page was constantly buzzing, as local schools made requests, spread the word, and praised the scheme. Unexpectedly, there was a higher demand amongst primary schools than secondary schools. Within weeks, several local schools were part of the programme. The whole scheme has been expanded from its initial scope, with drop-off boxes in community centres such as local hospitals regularly overflowing with donations. “Parents are so grateful,” Helen said. “We’ve heard such good feedback from the schools involved, and all the boxes are being accessed.”
The Red Box Project in Barrow is daily increasing in popularity. Helen has a waiting list for schools, and is only restrained at the moment by the need to ensure she can keep up a regular supply before she commits. She is, however, in contact with the Foodbank to discuss funding. Helen has plans to expand the reach of the Red Box Project beyond girls at school to other community centres, and will soon be able to get her next box out to one of the many schools who are interested.
Despite the success of the project today, Helen faced the same hurdles as anyone else when she first got started. “Everything happened in the wrong order!” Helen told me. “I had no idea where to start. Should I try to get donations first? Or set up the boxes and then look for donations?” In the end, speaking to and learning from other people was the most important part of trying to set up an organisation. When I asked Helen what advice she would give to people who want to set up a community organisation but don’t know where to begin, she said: “don’t try to do it on your own! Make sure there are people around to help you.” That isn’t to say that individuals can’t start up charities or organisations. It just means that the support of the community is essential to give advice, provide funds, and to ensure your scheme will actually be of use.
This community support is the very thing Helen considers the most gratifying result of her hard work. When I asked her what the most rewarding thing had been about setting up this division of the Red Box Project, she answered without hesitation, “all the people I’ve met. There are so many lovely people who have got in touch and helped. The absolute best thing has been the amazing generosity of people, as soon as they found out about the scheme.”
There are several ways you too can help Helen with the Red Box Project:
Get in touch with Helen to discuss how you could help, or to provide tombola prizes to help with fundraising, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow their Twitter account.
Join their Facebook page.
Give to their Crowdfunding page. You can support a young woman throughout her period for just the price of a coffee.
Find your local Red Box Project and buy some sanitary products to leave in one of their collection points. If you can’t find any in your area, how about going to talk to your local Foodbank or hospital about setting one up?
If you live in the area, check out the tombola regularly held in Barrow Market to raise funds.
Do some fundraising of your own! Check out this list of ways in which you can fundraise in your local community.
If possible, offer to be a collection point for the Red Box Project.
Consider starting a branch of the Red Box Project of your own! Be inspired by Helen’s story, and make a change within your own community.
Helen plans to make the Red Box Project sustainable in the future by setting up a system through which local people could sign up to provide a regular donation of as many boxes of pads and tampons a month as they wanted to, ensuring a stable supply for the boxes. She has big plans for the continuation and expansion of the project. From a struggling young woman living in a difficult situation, Helen has come full circle, and is empowering her community by supporting young women who might be living in difficult situations themselves. As the Red Box Project states, “her dignity is our responsibility.” Through schemes like the Red Box Project, the dignity of the entire community is raised.
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