Manitoba parish targets period poverty with red mailbox project

By

Brenda Still

The cost of menstrual products is a serious problem in Canada, says the Rev. Jann Brooks, especially when compounded with other stressors that often face women living in poverty, such as lack of food and clean water. Photo: Contributed

A small-town Manitoba parish is making menstrual products available to women in need by means of a special mailbox affixed to the outside of the church—and at least two other churches are following its example.

Since last spring, staff at Christ Church The Pas have been placing tampons, pantiliners and pads in a red mailbox hanging from the church wall, and inviting community members who need them to help themselves. The Rev. Jann Brooks says the service is being used to the point where she has to refill the mailbox every second day.

“What’s really wonderful is, people are taking what they need but nobody’s clearing out the mailbox, and nobody’s vandalizing it,” she says. “I think people appreciate it for what it is. It’s doing very well, and the people here in The Pas are excited by the idea.”

Brooks says she hopes the idea will catch on with other Anglican churches in Canada. As this story was being written, at least two churches had installed red mailboxes of their own: St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Brandon, Man. and St. Luke’s Anglican Church in Burlington, Ont.

Menstrual products have been estimated to cost women anywhere between $66 and $250 per year, Brooks says. (A 2017 article in Chatelaine magazine pegged the figure at a minimum of $65.82—but its author noted that this estimate assumed purchases from low-cost retailers like Walmart, an option unavailable to many in rural or remote communities, where prices are much higher.)

Of the women and girls polled in a 2019 Plan Canada survey, 34% said they had to “regularly or occasionally” make sacrifices in their budgets to afford menstrual products. In another survey, commissioned last year by Shoppers Drug Mart, 17% of respondents said they’d had to choose between buying menstrual products and groceries “more times than they can count.” Meanwhile, 14% reported having to use socks, rags and “sometimes worse” substitutes when they couldn’t afford period products—thereby risking infection, Brooks says.

It all means that period poverty is a serious problem in Canada, she says, especially when compounded with other physical stressors that often face women living in poverty, such as lack of food and clean water. Physical health aside, she adds, it impinges on human dignity.

Brooks, who was a nurse before she became a priest, says the problem has been concerning her for decades. But the idea of using a specially marked mailbox at Christ Church came to her quite suddenly, a few months after she arrived at The Pas in October 2020.

She says she saw a strong need in the community, where there are many homeless women and financially pinched university students.

“It occurred to me that there are a lot of women here having to fork out for what they don’t have,” she says. “I was looking at them and I was thinking, ‘Wow, what do you do?’

“One day I was walking out of the church and there was this ancient wooden mailbox hanging there,” she says. “It wasn’t used for anything because in The Pas, we don’t get mail delivery. We all have to go to the post office to pick up our mail… I thought, ‘There we go. That’s how we’re going to do it.’”

In the end, the church’s old wooden mailbox was deemed too leak-prone to work, so she got a new metal one, which a staff member painted red, and began taking donations. Word of the ministry spread through the community via social media, a couple of local news stories and word of mouth, Brooks says.

The ministry is supplied entirely by donations, and depending on what people give, the box will also sometimes contain other personal hygiene products, such as soap and hand lotion. Because there are some trans people in the community, the church doesn’t stipulate that it’s a ministry to women, Brooks says.

The Rev. Cheryl Kukurudz, executive assistant to the bishop and dean in the diocese of Brandon, says that some of the factors in the decision to put up a red mailbox at St. Matthew’s Cathedral were its downtown location and the fact that it is well known to many of Brandon’s displaced people.

“It is imperative that we be present and welcoming to the most vulnerable in the city, and this is one small way,” Kukurudz says. “We are happy to be able to help with something that is ironically still a taboo subject in society, given that half the population has periods.”

She says the project reminds her of Philippians 2:4: “Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”

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Tali Folkins

Tali Folkins

Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

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