On a warm, sunny morning with graduation just a week away, Natalie King-Shaw and Emilee Keppelmann graciously greet me at Reed High School where they take some time to share their accomplishments and reflect on their four-year experience of being Raiders.
The two seniors are graduating on June 12 and while they are excited, it’s a bittersweet ending for this chapter of their lives.
The friends met when they launched an enterprise project at Reed, which consisted of gathering and distributing hygiene products to the homeless. Together, they disbursed 1,300 “karma kits” all over Reno and Sparks, coordinated with Safe Embrace.
“I had a dream of doing this since I was a little kid; I started collecting things on my own (to give to people who needed them). My dad travels a lot for work so I would get hotel toiletries from him to give away,” King-Shaw says. She talked to Ms. Green, their human development teacher, about making it into a bigger project and the teacher introduced her to Keppelmann who had a similar interest in local economics and social studies. In their sophomore year, the pair launched the hygiene drive by drafting a fundraising letter and visiting 50 local businesses to drum up monetary donations and supplies.
“Most people wouldn’t think of hygiene supplies as a common thing that people need (razors and feminine products), but they are,” says Keppelmann. Attending the annual Point-in-Time (PIT) count in Reno, a 24-hour event that surveys homeless youth in Reno-Sparks, the seniors realized how serious the homelessness problem in Nevada was and wanted to act.
“Human development is very hands on, you learn a lot of life lessons from that,” Keppelmann says.
“The demographics of who we surveyed was eye-opening. The statistics show that 13 percent of the homeless youth are in high school right here in our community,” she says.
“It is cool to meet with the people who are getting the karma kits, because homelessness could happen to any of us at any moment. I could not imagine as a high school student not having a stable house or access to products,” King-Shaw says, noting that high school is hard in and of itself.
They met homeless girls who got pregnant and were kicked out of their homes or people who experienced changing family circumstances or dynamics and suddenly found themselves couch surfing. When faced with trying to figure out where to sleep that night, it can be difficult to be motivated to go to class, graduate or find a job that doesn’t require a high school diploma.
“That’s where the hygiene drive comes in, we try to give them one less thing to worry about,” King-Shaw says. The ladies say that it also made them appreciative of their own support systems.
“It was very eye-opening, one day I went home and gave my mom a hug. I’m so fortunate. As a society it’s easy to just write off our homeless youth when there’s so many stories (of people who need help),” King-Shaw says.
After the 24-hour PIT count event, Keppelmann and King-Shaw then had the idea to make feminine hygiene products more available in high school restrooms. As it stands, a high schooler must get a pass to go to the nurse’s office for any necessary products. Due to the hoops that high schoolers must jump through to manage the monthly event, Keppelmann and King-Shaw believe that students without safe feminine hygiene products just stay home or avoid school which can affect graduation rates.
The revelation led the pair to start the Free the Tampons campaign where they are pushing Washoe County schools to purchase and provide complimentary hygiene products in women’s restrooms.
“At least half of the students are impacted by this,” King-Shaw says. They drafted a letter and sent it to the Washoe County School District and wants to take it to legislation, even after graduation.
“We will definitely continue this after we leave. We’re people who’ve been in Washoe County our whole lives, so we’re not going to just drop it,” she adds.
“In human development there are some students who will take it over and continue it as a school project,” King-Shaw says about the future of the hygiene drive program, as Keppelmann plans to attend Washington State University and King-Shaw is heading south to San Diego State University next fall. Keppelmann has hopes that she can carry this project over to her new home in Washington and wants to study zoology and veterinary medicine. King-Shaw plans on getting her undergraduate degree in psychology and then pursue a master’s in occupational therapy.
Keppelmann believes that working on the hygiene drive has helped her feel more comfortable going into the next stage of her career. “Learning how to talk to people and making connections will definitely help in college,” she says.
King-Shaw also added that the project taught her the power of using her voice to create change and is thankful for the faculty who supported them in their quest to pursue their passions.
“To see an idea that we had grow so much is very rewarding,” she says.
However, while both Keppelmann and King-Shaw have high hopes for the future, the seniors will miss Reed High.
“I’m going to miss the teachers and staff. Everyone’s so friendly and nice; they really want to help you succeed here,” Keppelmann says.
“I feel like the teachers really believe in you,” King-Shaw says.
“I like this community, it’s small enough to get to know everybody but big enough to be a city, and it’s really beautiful here. That’s the bittersweet thing about graduating,” King-Shaw says.