Meet Rochelle Courtenay - The woman behind Share the Dignity

Meet Rochelle Courtenay - The woman behind Share the Dignity

By dear molly

As told to Cassandra Charlesworth

Share the Dignity has quickly established itself as one of Australia’s fastest growing charities.

Focussed on ending “period poverty”, the organisation provides sanitary products to homeless and disadvantaged women.

In just over three years it has grown from a collection amongst friends to a charity that has distributed 1.5 million pads and tampons nationally. 

Dear Molly recently connected with founder Rochelle Courtenay to meet the woman behind Share the Dignity and learn more about the simple initiatives that are making a very real difference to disadvantaged Australian women’s lives.

Its own path – How Share the Dignity began

“In 2015 I read an article about Australia’s 48,000 homeless women,” Share the Dignity founder Rochelle Courtenay explains.

“Not only did these women not have a safe place to call home, each month many were using wadded up toilet paper, paper napkins or even socks to manage their periods because they could not afford sanitary products.

“At the time I had a personal training business and saw 40 ladies each week, so I started a collection and asked my clients to contribute.

“We collected 460 packets of tampons and pads, took a photo and set up a Facebook page.

“Soon, it was clear we needed to go again.

“Meanwhile, lots of people kept saying they had never thought of the practicalities of dealing with a period when you have no place to call home and every dollar counts.

“I never intended it to be its own national charity. It turns out it had its own path.”

The juggle

Up until recently Share the Dignity was run from Rochelle’s home with volunteers assisting. She continued to operate her own personal training business while also juggling being a mum.

“I have two daughters – they’re now 19 and 21. Share the Dignity wouldn’t be around if they were little,” she notes.

“I’ve only just given up the part-time business. Up until then I saw clients and would find three to four hours to concentrate on the charity.

“Now, we’ve outgrowing the home office, and with 4000 volunteers, HR had to be put in place. These days we have eight staff, all of whom are women and all of whom fit in work with mothering and life.

“There are times when I’ve felt tired and then something comes along to remind me about the difference we make.

“I’ll see someone holding a Share the Dignity bag or I’ll hear about the impact we have.

“It puts it all in perspective and I feel blessed to do what we do.”

The stories that fuel the commitment

“There was one woman who had experienced domestic violence and was living in a car with her kids,” Rochelle continues.

“She told me that $5 for her was the choice between sausages and rissoles to feed her whole family. So why would she spend that on tampons or pads? She was using napkins to deal with her period. That’s just one of hundreds of thousands of stories.”

A breakthrough - Dignity Vending Machines

In 2017, Share the Dignity launched a new initiative to fund and install vending machines that would distribute pads and tampons for free in homeless shelters and schools.

Over 100 are now located around Australia in a bid ensure no young woman misses out on their education just because they are disadvantaged and female. More are planned in the next 12 months.

“I was standing in a homeless shelter that was managed mostly by men when a woman came up and asked them: ‘Do you have pads and tampons?’ Rochelle recalls.

“I remember thinking: ‘There is no way I could do that. We must find a way to do this differently.’ I pictured a pink vending machine.

“The challenge was to find a vending machine that could distribute supplies for free using a timer.

“Eventually we found someone who could assist and now we have 100 vending machines in Australian domestic violence shelters, schools and homeless hubs.

“Each costs around $10,000. We are not government funded. That $1 million of fundraising is simply because people care.”

This year Share the Dignity will also research the difference these vending machines make, looking specifically at their impact on absenteeism and anxiety in girls attending schools in disadvantaged areas.   

The camaraderie

An ever-present but somewhat unexpected benefit of the charity and its humble beginnings is the camaraderie between the many volunteers helping drive the initiative.

“We have women who are retired and help collect, others who are spreadsheet geniuses and help with data.

“I’m so proud – So proud of the friendships and the warrior women who drive what we do.

“It makes my heart sing to see the camaraderie between women working to do what’s best for other women.”

Beyond the gender divide, with a brighter future ahead

Meanwhile, Rochelle notes dignity is never just a women’s issue. 

 “I attend many schools speaking to girls about the “It’s in the bag” campaign.

“It’s a privilege to know these will be the leaders for us tomorrow. But I also spend a lot of time speaking at boys’ and co-ed schools, because it’s not just a women’s issue.

“Schools like Brisbane Boys Grammar are among those who consistently and tirelessly work with us.”

What’s next?

2018 was a major year for Share the Dignity. While the organisation continued its fundraising, raised awareness and collected and distributed countless packs of tampons and pads, they also played a major role in removing the infamous GST on tampons and pads known as the Tampon Tax.

As drought spread through regional Australia, Share the Dignity also became aware of a hidden issue affecting too many rural women.

“We recently sent pallets of tampons and pads to drought-affected communities,” Rochelle explains.

“Women were using Glad Wrap and socks instead of sanitary napkins because they had no running water.”

Now, with a new year ahead, Rochelle has her sights set on expanding the initiative overseas while also addressing the issue further in indigenous communities.

“The bottom line is; we need to do better, and we can.”

And what would Rochelle Courtenay tell her 13-year-old self? “Go with your gut feeling, especially in your 40s. If it feels right, it is.”

You can learn more about Share the Dignity and how you can help here.

dear molly

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