Local nonprofit Gap Fillers Flathead has brought its free menstrual product program to Columbia Falls High School, expanding an initiative that provides feminine hygiene products at no cost to hundreds of middle and high school students across the Flathead Valley.
“No longer does a girl have to go to anyone to get product. She can go in to the bathroom in privacy, and just push the button, and get what she needs,” Gap Fillers board member Mickey Lapp said. “It really takes the stigma out of menstruation.”
Gap Fillers was founded in 2018 by attorney and former Kalispell Mayor Tammi Fisher, who sought to purchase critical supplies that are often left out of school budgets, such as supplemental meals for low-income children, hygiene products, and emergency medical supplies for nurses’ offices.
In 2023 alone, the group paid off $2,190 in school lunch debt in the Kila School District, $9,000 in debt for graduating seniors across the Flathead Valley’s public high schools and $2,995 at Somers Middle School.
Beyond settling the tab for school lunch debt, Fisher and the Gap Fillers board wanted to address another challenge faced by the Flathead Valley’s low-income students — “period poverty.”
The United Nations Population Fund defines “period poverty” as “the struggle many low-income women and girls face while trying to afford menstrual products,” as well as “the increased economic vulnerability women and girls face due the financial burden posed by menstrual supplies.” 500 million people who menstruate lack access to proper hygiene products, and an estimated 16.9 million people who menstruate in the United States live in poverty. The lack of access to period products extends to the Flathead Valley, where young people are often left to manage their menstrual cycles without adequate supplies.
“There’s a lot of girls who lack the funds or access to basic feminine supplies,” Lapp said. “You would be shocked to know how many don’t have the money to buy supplies.”
With the goal of curbing “period poverty” in the Flathead Valley, Gap Fillers set out to put free menstrual product dispensers, stocked with supplies, in middle and high schools across the area. By putting free dispensers in bathrooms, the nonprofit hoped to eliminate both the need for period products, as well as the stigma of having to ask teachers or nurses for free supplies.
“We do it to preserve dignity. There are a lot of girls of that age that are embarrassed by it. They don’t want anybody to know that they’re on their period, and they don’t want to talk about it or ask for products,” Lapp said.
First, the nonprofit brought the program to Flathead High School, where Gap Fillers board member Michele Paine is the principal. Then, the program made its way to Glacier High School and a number of local middle schools, and now, Columbia Falls High School.
Lapp, who has worked with Gap Fillers since its founding in 2018, said that the program has been propelled by community donors and enthusiastic volunteers, administrators and school staff, who have helped install the dispensers and keep them stocked.
“Our community is amazing, how they just stand up and pitch in and where there’s a need,” she said.
Gap Fillers hopes to continue expanding all of its programs, from school lunch debt relief to free menstrual products. Hopefully, Lapp said, the group will be able to grow in the future — shifting from Gap Fillers Flathead to Gap Fillers Montana.
“It’s really been a terrific journey,” Lapp said.
Those interested in donating to Gap Fillers can visit their website, send a check by mail to the Gap Fillers office at 2310 HWY 2 E Ste. 4, or purchase items directly from the organization’s Amazon wish list.
Gap Fillers will also be hosting a bingo night fundraiser on Wed. Aug. 30 at Fatt Boys in Kalispell. More information can be found here.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Gap Fillers paid off $9,000 in school lunch debt for Flathead High School’s graduating seniors. The nonprofit paid $9,000 in school lunch debt for all graduating seniors across the Flathead Valley’s public high schools.
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