“You have no idea that I’m standing here in my cupboard with no clothes on.”
Those are the first words I hear as I make out the blurry image of what seems to be a bedroom ceiling on my computer. I’m video calling Rochelle Courtenay, founder of Share the Dignity, a not-for-profit charity which has helped thousands of Australian women and girls experiencing homelessness or other socio-economic factors that prevent them from buying pads and tampons. And I seem to have caught her running a few minutes late.
Five minutes later Rochelle, fully clothed in an off-the-shoulder black shirt, calls me back and shows off the picturesque view she has of the ocean from her patio in Sandgate, Queensland.
In February 2015 Rochelle read an article about female homelessness on news website Mamamia and decided to make a difference. By March she had set up a Facebook group to collect pads and tampons to pass on to homeless shelters. Her eldest daughter, 19-year-old Aleesha created the original graphics and edited the early videos of Rochelle calling for action. In the two years since its inception, Share the Dignity has raised approximately $10 million in physical donations and boasts over 93 thousand Facebook followers, but Rochelle isn’t satisfied just yet.
“There’s 19 million people in Australia on Facebook so that’s just a small drop in the ocean. I would have hoped that we would be further [by now]. I hoped that more women would know about the fact that it’s a massive issue”.
Share the Dignity holds sanitary product collection drives in April and August of each year, or the “angel months”, as Rochelle playfully calls them. “I literally chose them because they were always called the angel months. That’s the whole “science” behind it. It doesn’t really make any sense,” she laughs.
The charity is run by 1500 volunteers across Australia, so collecting twice a year risks burning them out and relies on the collection boxes as a “call to action”. While Rochelle is keen to collect once a year, she acknowledges the logistical difficulties surrounding this.
“It would be amazing if we could only collect once a year, but I don’t think it will work that way. If we collect 200 thousand packets of pads and tampons in April this year, if you do the maths that’s only enough for 25 thousand women for four months for their period.”
Aside from the sanitary item collections, Share the Dignity raises money through their “DigniTEA” high teas in May and hold other fundraising initiatives throughout the year. This year over 3000 women across Australia will celebrate World Menstrual Hygiene Day on 28 May by attending DigniTEA events in capital cities. In Brisbane tickets for the DigniTEA sold out in three days, which Rochelle states “sold out faster than an Adele concert”.
Last year Rochelle was named Cosmopolitan’s Humanitarian of the Year for her work with Share the Dignity. The glass award holds a special place both on the mantelpiece and in her thoughts.
“I was really chuffed. There are some fabulous charities out there and some amazing women doing fabulous stuff,” she beams.
“I take that award very humbly. Honestly, Share the Dignity is not about me, it’s this amazing movement of women who said that’s not ok, I’ll help – it doesn’t happen on your own. When I get an award or I get nominated for something, it’s not mine. It’s for all of us. I just happen to be there with my hair done and makeup on,” she continues, fastening a silver chain on her right wrist.
2017 marks an exciting year for Share the Dignity, with the rolling out of their new initiative, the “Pink Box” – a vending machine that dispenses sanitary products to those in low socio-economic areas. The two prototypes were installed at Hosier Lane in Melbourne, Victoria and the Bracken Ridge McDonald’s in Queensland. The fast food restaurant offers clean toilets, police security and relatively affordable food, making it a common destination for domestic abuse survivors.
Twenty vending machines are scheduled to be rolled out across Australia in 2017, with hopes for another 30 to follow. At $9000 each for initial costs and an additional $2.50 per packet dispensed, the charity needs to ensure the money continues to come in through fundraising.
Suddenly, we’re on the move. Rochelle is on her way to a meeting with Soroptimist International, a female-led global philanthropy organisation aimed at helping women in need. “You’re coming with me” she chirps as she walks to the car and props her phone up near the handbrake.
“Sorry you have to look up my nose”, she apologises with a laugh, putting the car into gear. She continues to answer my questions on the ten-minute drive.
As she drives, Rochelle tells me that she attributes the success of Share the Dignity to Facebook.
“We wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for social media. What would I have done two years before – put an ad out in the local paper? You just couldn’t have done it. It never would have happened”.
The ongoing support of Share the Dignity from her family, particularly her two daughters Aleesha and Hayley, has warmed Rochelle’s heart.
“My girls have counted more packets of pads and tampons than any person in the world I think. We’ve all thrown pads and tampons at each other at some stage.”
The self-proclaimed “crazy pad lady” admits that although there is some irony in her nickname, she embraces it fondly.
“I don’t even get my period anymore, so it’s quite funny that I’m the pad lady. I suffered so badly with endometriosis and I had a merina coil put in 10 years ago. It completely changed my life. I was down for two days every month not being able to work, huddled over in pain. It took me five years to fall pregnant with my first child. The best day in my life was the day that Aleesha was born because I never thought I would have children. So, crazy pad lady I am. I wear that label very proudly.”