Updated: Tuesday, February 6, 2018, 4:18 PM
Fourth in an occasional series that follows a group of first-generation college students through their freshman year at the elite University of Pennsylvania.
Two eighth graders burning to save the world stood in a conference room at Greenfield Elementary School in Center City, surrounded by dozens of packages of feminine products.
“So … this is just a lot of tampons,” said Sasha Mennino, 13, incredulous that she and her friend Iris Peron-Ames, 14, had gathered thousands of them.
As collection drives go, this is an unusual story.
The two girls, along with a third friend, wanted to give hygiene supplies to low-income students at the University of Pennsylvania who are considered first-generation — first in their families on course to graduate from a four-year college.
The girls were moved after Iris’ mother, Melanie Peron, 44, a senior lecturer in French at Penn, described how a first-generation student had confided to Peron that money is so tight she must sometimes choose between eating breakfast or buying tampons.
Tragically in December, as the three eighth graders planned their campaign, Iris and Sasha’s friend Kalina Brook Kozlowski, 14, took her own life, which redoubled the teenagers’ efforts.
Last week, they completed their drive and called Penn to deliver the goods, which also included toiletries other than tampons. They named the gift “Kalina’s Cabinet.”
Penn declined to accept it.
Thus the teenagers, already obliged at a young age to contemplate poverty and mortality, were also taught a lesson on the vagaries of the adult world.
Still, the girls accomplished something rare, say national philanthropy professionals, who never before heard of an instance in which girls that age endeavored to help college women of limited means.
And ultimately, said Kathryn Gay, Kalina’s mother, the campaign shined a light on her daughter’s passion for social justice.
“The more people who keep her in their memory, the better,” Gay said. “Had she lived, she would have done amazing things.”
Struggling for necessities?
Melanie Peron is a popular figure at Penn.
“Hilarious, smart, captivating,” wrote students in a campus publication that rates her as one of Penn’s best professors, though she’s technically a lecturer. “She is amazing.”
Herself a first-generation college student from France, Peron is the daughter of a farmer. Several first-generation Penn students have told her they’ve “struggled for necessities,” she said, such as tampons and shampoo.
She said they hadn’t heard of the FGLI program, the first-generation, low-income office at Penn that strives to help students get whatever they need.
First-generation students who were interviewed for this story — all of whom receive substantial financial aid, like other FGLI students — said that program helps in myriad ways, even offering food and textbooks for those who can’t afford them.
“We provide support for students who need a coat, a hair dryer, anything from $2 to $10,000,” said Elaine Papas-Varas, senior university director of student financial aid.
She added that the university meets with students about “really personal stuff.”
But not every problem can be solved.
“Nobody in a university’s administration knows every student’s experience, and no student wants to shout from rooftops, ‘I don’t have enough tampons!’ ” said Clare Cadey, director of the College and University Food Bank Alliance at Temple University.
Cadey, an expert on student needs, said it’s not unusual for students to be unable to afford feminine products.
“And it would be common that a student needing help getting tampons would find someone they trust on campus to tell them, like a French teacher,” Cadey said.
When Peron told her daughter, Iris, about what a student told her she was lacking, Iris and her friends seized on it with youthful fervor. Kalina especially caught fire.
“Kalina is the one who came up with the drive to donate tampons to FGLI students,” Peron said. “She’s the most socially aware.”
Kalina marched against President Trump, advocated for mental-health awareness, and raised funds for hurricane victims in Puerto Rico. As a young child, she’d traveled to Trinidad with Gay, then working as a public health official on foodborne illnesses for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Now a low-cost outpatient veterinarian with the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in North Philadelphia, Gay said: “I tried to instill the idea of helping others into Kalina. She embraced that.”
Kalina discovered a column last February in the Penn student newspaper in which first-generation student James Fisher wrote that even with financial aid, it’s hard for him to get everything he needs. He credited the FGLI program, which “helped me a lot because I know damn well that I could not pay for all of my textbooks without missing a meal or not having toilet paper.”
The girls became convinced that lack of toiletries was a problem, Gay said.
Sasha concurred. “We tried to put ourselves in the shoes of first-generation students,” she said. “My family always provides for me. What students go through must be stressful.”
To collect feminine products, the eighth graders solicited in classrooms at Greenfield Elementary, which is named after local philanthropist Albert Greenfield, coincidentally the namesake of Greenfield Intercultural Center at Penn, where the FGLI offices are housed.
Some of the younger students didn’t know what the products were, but their parents, who’d read the flyer the teen collectors had generated, understood what was being requested. Parents simply told their kids to carry mysterious boxes of products to school, and the children complied, Peron said.
“They just had no clue,” she laughed.
John Neary, a Greenfield language arts teacher and mentor for the school’s community service club, acknowledged, “It’s an unusual drive and the students are not sure how it’ll resonate in the community.”
Laura Otten, director of the Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business, said she “can’t come up” with another example of young teens helping college students in such a way. Katherina Rosqueta, founding executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at Penn, also was stumped to find a precedent. But she said she understood the girls’ impetus.
“If there’s something that would resonate with a 13-year-old girl who may have just had her first period, it would be that a woman wouldn’t be able to afford a tampon,” Rosqueta said. “What prompts people to give is when they understand the need.”
In September, Peron had reached out to FGLI. A person listed as a FGLI program staff member replied to Peron by email, “We would be happy to accept donations of feminine hygiene products …”
She and the girls were surprised when Penn declined the supplies.
The Rev. William Gipson, associate vice provost for equity and access at Penn, praised the teenagers’ initiative, but said that the staffer who agreed to accept the tampons is a part-time worker who “doesn’t speak for Penn.” He added that Penn “has no process in place” to accept the donation without “guidelines” to be certain the school wasn’t “violating any rules.”
Gay said the school believes it can provide toiletries for its own students, and that “they were embarrassed by taking resources from a public school that would be perceived as having greater need than Penn. It sounded like something political.”
As it happens, Penn students themselves have demonstrated an awareness of the expense of hygiene products. A student club known as the Penn Period Project provides menstrual products for the homeless in West Philadelphia.
Ultimately, Gay decided she would accept Penn’s offer to dispatch FGLI students to help Iris and Sasha transfer the toiletries to a charity. A GoFundMe account that raised more than $3,000 in Kalina’s name, organized by Gay’s nephew, will likely go to a charity, too.
Like Gay, Iris said she’s on board: “In the end, the resources we collected are still going to people in need of them.”
Gay was pleased with Iris’ response, as well as her work with Sasha.
“Kalina would be very proud of her friends,” Gay said. “My greatest consolation is that she lives on through them.”