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South Florida Teen Turns Passion For Public Service Into Mission To Destigmatize Feminine Hygiene

Alex Hernandez gathers with Coral Springs officials holding menstrual products as they wear masks
Courtesy of Alex Hernandez
Alex is center left with city officials and partners at the Period Drive in April 2021

This post was updated Tuesday, June 8.

Alex Hernandez is set on changing the way our society reacts to menstruation. What began as a simple act of kindness has evolved into a global initiative aimed at providing basic hygienic necessities to those with limited access, funds, and resources.

It started during her sophomore year at Coral Glades High School in Coral Springs. Alex noticed that every month, an English learning classmate would excuse herself from the classroom to visit the school nurse. Concerned and confused at the frequency of these visits, Hernandez eventually took it upon themselves to accompany the classmate to nurse one day.

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“The nurse knew her,” Hernandez said with surprise, wondering if the classmate had a medical condition. The classmate, in fact, did not have an abnormal affliction. Upon seeing the two students, the nurse handed Hernandez’s classmate seven sheets of toilet paper stacked atop each other.

Hernandez asked the classmate what she planned to do with the wad of tissue. Her peer responded: “It’s a pad,” and explained that she couldn’t afford to buy her own sanitary items. As a result, she was reliant on the nurse’s stash of toilet paper during each menstrual cycle.

That day, Hernandez learned that Florida is an abstinence-only education state. As such, feminine hygiene products are marked as contraceptives and effectively outlawed from being freely distributed in public schools. Yet another example of matters of feminine health and hygiene being deemed as taboo in public spaces.

“At first I was taken aback,” Hernandez said, “and second I was like, ‘Oh my God, I need to get my friend pads,’ so that’s exactly what I did.”

Hernandez’s generosity quickly turned into a public service mission upon realizing that the situation with her peer was not isolated. She soon joined her school’s chapter of Girl Up, a UN organization that focuses on matters of gender equality for young women across the globe. Through her membership with the club and with the help of her advisor, Hernandez was able to start The Period Project.

The initiative began with decorative boxes filled with feminine and general hygiene products distributed among various classrooms across the school. Eventually, the project began to pick up traction but it wasn’t without opposition from some who were made uncomfortable by the increased presence of feminine health advocacy.

Hernandez recalled that some teachers discredited the necessity of the products in the classroom. Random men mocked her efforts online. Hernandez quickly learned that with her project she was not only fighting against the socio-economic hurdles that plagued some of her peers but also the overarching patriarchy that often criminalizes matters of femininity — no matter the situation.

Still, she was able to get the community to rally behind the project. Hernandez approached the vice mayor of Coral Springs to create a Period Project for the city at large. Hernandez’s sophomore year effort culminated in a massive collection drive during the final months of her senior year. The Period Drive, a collaboration with several Broward county high schools, took place April 17 and reaped more than 10,000 donations in Coral Glades High School alone.

Through these efforts, Hernandez was able to collaborate with The Beauty Initiative. The statewide organization is keen on dismantling harmful attitudes towards feminine health and advocates for easier access to basic hygiene items. They’re rallying behind the implementation of a bill that would require period products in all Florida public schools. Next year's legislative session will be the third year in a row that the bill will be up for decision.

Throughout Hernandez's time in high school, the now 18-year-old also lent her passion for public service through missionary work and toy drives. The 2021 Silver Knight recipient will be attending Nova Southeastern University in the fall where she intends to double major in internal relations and national security. A path that she hopes will lead them to a seat in the United Nations to further her impact on matters of gender equality around the world.

This post was updated to adjust language about the reception to Alex's project in school.

Shianne Salazar is a former intern and freelancer at WLRN News.
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