Lifestyle Wellness

Spotlight On: Project Dignity of WNC

Helping Fight Period Poverty in WNC

By Emma Castleberry

In 2016, Barbara Morgan got a call from her son in Wichita, Kansas. “He had some mental health and life issues and he was on social service,” says Barbara’s husband, Tom Morgan. Barbara’s son had called to tell his mother that he was out of toilet paper, which can’t be bought with food stamps. In the conversation, he also mentioned that his neighbor Carol had told him she couldn’t buy feminine products with her food stamps. “Barb was just shocked and it wouldn’t go away,” says Tom. “Barb was an extremely spiritual person and she decided that the Holy Spirit wanted to her to pursue this issue.”

“Barb” Barbara Jean Morgan, founder and president of Project Dignity of WNC

Barbara called up her friends and started to spread the word about the often overlooked issue of period poverty. In 2017, Barbara founded Project Dignity of WNC, a nonprofit that partners with social service organizations to provide period products to women and girls who are homeless, low-income or victims of domestic abuse.

In May of 2021, Barbara passed away after a long illness. Her legacy lives on as Tom has moved into a leadership role as president. “While Barb was struggling with her illness, she adopted a meme from the ‘Finding Nemo’ movie and it kept her spirits high,” says Tom. “Nemo’s friend Dory said, ‘When life gets you down, you know what you gotta do? Just keep swimming.’ For the team at Project Dignity, we know period poverty is a real life issue that gets many folks down. That’s why we carry on for Barb and just keep swimming.”

What started off as Barbara with a bag of products and no budget has grown into a robust nonprofit that has more than 450 regular donors. Project Dignity provides pads and tampons to 148 public schools and 59 social service agencies across 10 Western North Carolina counties. “We believe powerfully and strongly that the dignity of the woman who needs this product is paramount,” says vice president and founding member Debbie O’Malley. “Providing this product to them through these agencies helps take away the worry and fear of not being able to purchase or afford product, or going without food as opposed to getting product that they need. Women typically miss work time and girls miss school time if they don’t have access to product.”

While Project Dignity doesn’t have direct contact with their clients, they get consistent feedback from their partners that this is a vital service. “One agency that deals with low-income women, a local food pantry, said the women have come and thanked them because they don’t have to cut up their old clothes for rags anymore,” says O’Malley. “This is 2021. That should not be.”

In the schools, administrators have noticed that the attendance of female students has improved since period products have been provided to them. “If they start in school, they don’t have to leave to get product,” says O’Malley. “If they have an accident they can take care of it at the nurse. It has affected attendance of classes and even at sports programs.”

If you’re surprised to learn that period products aren’t covered by food stamps, you’re not alone. “This issue is not being addressed at any level of government,” says Tom, “and people just don’t have an awareness of it. That’s our biggest mission. We’ll handle local logistics, but we need better awareness about period poverty.”

In an effort to improve welfare coverage for pads and tampons, Tom says he’s often hit a wall. “Trying to get people excited about a product that nobody wants to talk about is really tough,” he says. “The food stamp program is a massive rock to push up the hill to try to change it.”

Some states, including California and Massachusetts, have made period products exempt from sales tax. In other countries such as Scotland and New Zealand, the products are now freely available in public places. But for now, in most parts of the US and especially in WNC, operations like Project Dignity are the only hope for women who can’t afford pads and tampons.

The past few years have been difficult for the nonprofit amid the struggle of the pandemic and the reorganization after Barb’s passing, but Project Dignity looks forward to a robust 2022 with many fundraising events. “This issue is not going away,” says Tom. “As long as there are women and girls out there that don’t have what they need, Project Dignity will keep on doing this work and other agencies will spring up and give us assistance.”

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