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Lincoln's first hygiene bank honored as 'period hero'

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Although not as high-profile as food insecurity and homelessness, hygiene poverty impacts millions of Americans each year, including thousands in Nebraska.

Suzi Dearmont, founder and president of Poverty Impact Network, was first exposed to the issue on a local level while volunteering at Barnabas Community, a free store in Lincoln for low-income families where she saw the need for hygiene supplies.

"After that, it always just sat in my head that this was a need that people had," Dearmont said. "And as COVID-19 hit, we were hearing about people losing their jobs, restaurants closing and I knew that the need was going to be increasing, so I jumped in to figure out how I could help."

On Aug. 29, menstrual hygiene company Always and Walmart honored the Poverty Impact Network, Lincoln's first hygiene bank, as Nebraska's "period hero" for its work addressing period poverty in Nebraska. The two national organizations teamed to select one nonprofit making an impact in each state.

"Period poverty is really a subcategory of hygiene poverty," Dearmont said. “Our goal in fighting hygiene poverty is to bring back not just health, but also dignity and self-esteem to these individuals that are experiencing it. ... It feels very good to be recognized by two larger national companies. It's inspiring and motivating for us to continue.”

Hygiene poverty refers to a lack of access to everyday hygiene products, such as shampoo, toilet paper, dish soap, deodorant, period products and more. Dearmont noted a lack of substantial research surrounding the issue in the United States, referencing the most recent comprehensive study, conducted by Feeding America in 2013.

The study found that three in four families who are unable to afford household necessities skipped washing dishes or doing laundry. Sixty-three percent of families prioritized washing only the children's clothes and one-third reported bathing without soap or reusing diapers for financial reasons.

"During Hunger Action Month in September, we are reminded that one in six Americans struggles with hunger, but we often don't think about the additional hardship and emotional toll placed on these families who are unable to afford personal hygiene and basic household items," Bob Aiken, CEO of Feeding America, said in the report.

Founded in late 2020, the Poverty Impact Network provides free hygiene and personal care products to other nonprofit organizations, schools and community centers. Instead of providing direct service, it donates materials to other agencies people are already using for assistance to make hygiene products more accessible.

Suzi Dearmont

Suzi Dearmont

"Suzi is a beautiful person to work with," said Audrey Back, development coordinator for Fresh Start Lincoln, one of the network's community partners. "She goes out of her way to be flexible and is always inquiring into what new needs Fresh Start has. She wants to make sure that she is fitting our needs and serving us in the best way possible."

Fresh Start is a goals-oriented transitional-living program that provides assistance and shelter to homeless women in Lincoln. Residents can stay in the alcohol- and drug-free environment for between 90 days and one year while working toward self-sufficiency.

"Our women live here at the shelter, so hygiene products have always been built into the budget, but we've always relied on donations from the community and companies and groups to host donation drives," Back said. "These donations from the Poverty Impact Network allow us to put more funding toward programming and resources, and less toward hygiene products and medication."

In the past two years, the Poverty Impact Network distributed more than 50,000 hygiene and personal care items, reaching almost 7,000 families across Lancaster County.

According to Dearmont, when people experience financial hardship, hygiene products are one of the first things to go.

"They’re trying to still pay rent, they're still trying to keep gas in their car, to provide food, and so they're giving up (hygiene) things prior to seeking other types of assistance," Dearmont said. "By the time these people are reaching out for government assistance and food assistance, they're often already experiencing hygiene poverty."

During the coronavirus pandemic, research from Plan International showed a severe shortage of products, increased prices for hygiene products and a decrease in average household income exacerbated the already existing issue, especially relating to menstrual hygiene. However, even as communities recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and return to business as usual, Dearmont said the issue isn't improving.

"What's happened now is we've got high inflation, we've got rents being increased, we're seeing it from a different perspective," she said. "If you look at what the food banks are experiencing, they're seeing an increased need again."

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Reach the writer at (402) 473-2657 or lpenington@journalstar.com

On Twitter @L_Penington.

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News intern

Lauren Penington, a Colorado native and current junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, reports on breaking news and feature stories as a news intern for the Journal Star.

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