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  • Robin Linares, Staff Writer

Collaboration needed to improve menstrual product distribution

Empty period dispenser. Photo by Lucy Devlaeminck.

Ongoing concerns regarding maintenance and filling of menstrual product dispensers in residence hall bathrooms are causing a push for the housing department to rethink protocols. 

Many students may be familiar with the period product dispensers providing free pads and tampons to students in the residence hall restrooms. This initiative, first introduced in 2021, allowed for the installation of 37 dispensers in various womens and gender neutral restrooms. However, there have been increasing issues with the dispensers, ranging from not being consistently stocked, to mechanical issues.

Of 50 women’s and gender neutral bathrooms examined throughout the residence halls on the week of Nov. 13, 33 had period product dispensers. However, within this sample, 11 machines were experiencing mechanical issues, meaning that products were unable to dispense. Another 13 machines were either empty or only had one type of menstrual product.

According to Sarah Henry (’24), a resident advisor (RA) and Associated Students of Willamette University (ASWU) senator, the RA on duty is in charge of restocking the products as part of their nightly tasks. She noted some common reasons this task could be overlooked, which includes communication issues, occasional forgetfulness and most recently, a lack of pad supplies. “That’s why I've been working through my role as an RA and also an ASWU senator to meet with housing, and other people, to try to get better practices, and setting up the foundations for how these things are supposed to be managed,” Henry explained.

Heather Kropf, the director of residence life & student conduct, noted the limitations of the current system in place, citing a current “gap in [Willamette’s] protocol” as reasoning for some of the hiccups faced. Ordering period products from the vendor and looking into maintenance of the machines hasn’t been a task that Kropf, who joined Willamette’s housing department in May 2022, has needed to do until now, since the stock of pads had recently run out this semester since the first time she had been hired.

Henry noted that many of these protocol-based issues can be attributed to a wave of turnover in the housing department after the initiative was newly implemented, before any formalized protocols were in place. “Things fall through the cracks, and I think that is unfortunately what has happened,” Henry explained. “The staff pre-COVID at Willamette didn’t leave a lot of reference guides on how to do anything for a lot of the people who are new. So I don't think it's a reflection on the people who are here that those issues have kind of arisen but [more due to] staff turnover.”

Because of these concerns, Henry is working to expand access to period products as a part of her ASWU campus improvement project, which includes clarifying period restocking procedures and adding accountability measures to ensure the task is done. One method currently used is adding the task to the RA-on-duty summary log to get a paper trail to see whether that task is getting done. However, Henry did note that the procedures to ensure a dispenser is restocked can vary by residence hall. Other methods that other halls utilize is adding a QR code near the machine to a restocking form so RAs can get notified when the dispenser needs to get restocked.

Another concern with the dispensers is their uneven distribution throughout residence halls. Within Baxter hall, there are 12 dispensers, while Matthews Complex has six, Doney has four,  both Lee and York and Lausanne have four, and Kaneko has two. Because of this, a few restrooms have plastic bins carrying period supplies, which are sometimes maintained by the residents themselves. Karmen Zhao (‘27), a Kaneko resident, has set up her own bin in one of the restrooms as a way to ensure residents have access to these products. “I think that it's important for those who need it to have access to period products. If I have enough to give, then I think that I should be able to provide a little bit for everybody,” Zhao said. 

When looking to the future, the ideal goal is to have more dispensers and ideally have some in academic wings as well. However, the funding for maintaining and furthering these ideas continues to be discussed. The cost of a new dispenser is $315 and a box of 500 pads and tampons cost $150 each, which is enough product to fill five dispensers. Because of this, Kropf expressed the need for collaborative funding between the housing department and other student groups, like the Residence Hall Association and Community Action Fund for Equity and Sustainability grants. “My budget can cover potentially things like pads and tampons, but the dispensers would be something that I would need assistance on from a budgetary standpoint,” Kropf said.  

For now, the main goal is to get these conversations started about creating new uniform protocols and ironing out funding issues in order to help sustain and grow this project in the future. “It's a complicated, structural thing that hopefully, with my advocacy, will not be as much of a problem for the future,” Henry said.

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