Over a year ago, a group of dedicated CJP volunteers got together to think about how we could care for community during this time of uncertainty. Tasked with trying to support simultaneous health and economic crises, we recognized the needs of CJP’s partners were mounting. Thankfully, Women’s Philanthropy stepped in and we created Mitzvah Mondays to provide virtual volunteer opportunities that allow us to help others.

This May, in honor of Women’s Health Month, we are partnering with Hope & Comfort to collect essential hygiene products for women, youth, and families in need across the Greater Boston area. The struggle of hygiene insecurity is close to my heart. I wanted to share an example of how this seemingly small problem can intensify situations for those already vulnerable. This is Nicole’s story* (her name has been changed for her privacy). Her story is all too familiar to clients like those served through Hope & Comfort’s programs.


While visiting her 2-year-old’s paternal grandmother for the weekend, Nicole was called by the shelter where she was living temporarily. A pipe had burst, flooding the 100-square-foot room that she shared with her son. During the dead of winter, the call came with no apology and no suggestion of an alternate place to live.

Nicole, only 19 herself, was not allowed to stay at her mother-in-law’s public housing much longer. She reached out, via a friend, to a colleague of mine. While anxious for guidance to secure safer, more reliable housing, Nicole’s most immediate worry was getting diapers for her toddler.

Leaving for the weekend, she’d taken only what she needed for two days. The flooding destroyed the few possessions they had left in their single room. The shelter staff told Nicole that it wasn’t safe to return to retrieve those belongings. The roof (where the pipe had burst above Nicole’s temporary room) was, apparently, near collapse. Her first panicked thought was how would she pay to replace the diapers she had already purchased for the month? Like almost all moms, she could think of nothing beyond caring for her very young child, desperately wanting to keep him safe and clean.

There is so much to consider from this snippet of Nicole’s story, not the least of which is finding long-term living opportunities other than the teen shelter where she was placed with few other children or families. But most pressing, in the moment, was her plea to simply fill her son’s most urgent needs, compounded by the shame and fear that she might not be able to do so. Nicole’s painful circumstance is common.

For families on extremely tight budgets, particularly since the pandemic has challenged former livelihood and strained reserves, choosing between food, rent, or immediate needs such as hygiene products and diapers causes daily stress and anxiety. Many of us are aware that many people need help fulfilling what’s referred to as basic needs: namely, shelter and food. Does a family have a roof over their heads and enough to eat? The concepts of housing instability and food insecurity have become mainstream, but hygiene insecurity is a deeply connected struggle, hiding in plain sight. Vulnerable families often face complicated decisions and profoundly difficult feelings; once you understand that, you can appreciate how hard it is to both navigate and emerge from those circumstances.

A concrete way to understand what vulnerable families are up against is to consider what federal programs designed to support challenged families cover and what they do not.

For example, benefits from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps”) do not pay for soap, shampoo, or tampons (see image below); and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) federal assistance cannot be used for diapers.

(Courtesy image)

Parents like Nicole feel tremendous pain, shame, guilt, and anxiety about choices that they need to make for their children and themselves. Without soap or shampoo, for example, how can people present themselves for a job interview? Children and teens without access to these items are teased at school for “smelling,” and adolescent girls are particularly scared of bleeding through their clothes when menstruating.

These, too, are basic human needs. Legislation is being evaluated to change rules and regulations, which could allow families the dignity of including hygiene products as basic needs. In the meantime, Hope & Comfort is a nonprofit established to try to help.

The following statistics put these issues into perspective:

  • Roughly 250,000 youth under the age of 18 in Massachusetts experience hygiene insecurity.
  • One in five youth miss school each month because they lack access to menstrual products.
  • Nine out of 10 youth report feeling stressed when hygiene and period products are unavailable.
  • In a survey of youth Hope & Comfort serves, 100% said receiving hygiene and period products has improved their self-esteem.
  • Last year, Hope & Comfort distributed over 1.5 million hygiene products. Sadly, this merely scratches the surface. An estimated 50 million products are needed to meet the demand among youth and adults in Massachusetts experiencing hygiene insecurity.

Data courtesy of a report funded by The Miriam Project in conjunction with Hope & Comfort, 2019-2020.

Visit our website for more details about how you can participate in the Mitzvah Monday virtual drive to support Hope & Comfort.

Thank you, in advance, for your consideration and assistance. The care and kindness conveyed through this simple act touches people like Nicole and her son, allowing them to feel recognized, comforted, and respected.

*The patient’s real name has been changed to protect her privacy and that of her family. While her circumstance represents many of the people served by Hope & Comfort, she is not their current client.