It was just an ordinary February for Chelsea VonChaz when the unexpected happened.
She was navigating through L.A. traffic on her way to drop off some clothes at a showroom—one of the many odd jobs that she had picked up to make ends meet after leaving her seven-year stint as a stylist.
As she pulled up to a red light on the corner of LaBrea and 3rd street, she spotted something simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. A homeless woman crossing the road—not an uncommon site in the Hollywood area where pitched tents and makeshift pallets of tattered blankets and balled up clothing flank the sidewalks. But this woman was a little different than the norm.
Her chocolate complexion showed signs of wear, making it difficult to distinguish her age—not old, but not quite young either. She rocked a buzz cut and random patches of dirt covered her extremely thin frame. And as she stepped into the crosswalk in her ripped, dirty tank top and shorts serving as underwear, Chelsea caught sight of her blood-stained bottoms as the woman shuffled over to the Trader Joe's and proceeded to pull down her bottoms and squat on the side of the building—in plain sight.
“There were cars around me, and I was just tripping out when I saw it like does anybody else see this?" Chelsea says. “I was looking around and it was like the normal thing to just look and keep it pushing and go on with your life. Nobody is freaking out right now, and that just pissed me off. And I'm like okay well I'm apart of the problem too without creating a solution."
It was on that day that Chelsea, who up until that point was struggling with finding her purpose, decided to bring to fruition her idea of #HappyPeriod—a non-profit organization that provides menstrual care items to homeless communities across the country. Within a week Chelsea had reached out to friends and family members for donations to create the first set of period kits to distribute to the homeless community.
But just a few months prior, Chelsea was battling with depression and the frustration of working in an unfulfilling job. She watched as friends and fellow stylists and make up artists excelled in their own careers, but she wasn't reaping the desired rewards of her own labor.
“I just felt like it wasn't my purpose and I didn't want to do it anymore more," says Chelsea. “It wasn't feeding me anything; it was putting me in a deeper hole. It wasn't pushing me forward in my career as far as getting better clients and better gigs or more money, nor was it helping with me spiritually because it was draining. I wasn't really feeling it like a lot of people were feeling it, and then with social media, none of that really helped."
Sinking deeper into depression, the then 26-year-old began trading styling gigs for odd jobs just to pay the bills while she figured out the next steps of her life. During that time she jotted down ideas for #HappyPeriod in her notebooks, but never acted on them until after seeing the woman out side of Trader Joe's. She saw it as just the sign she needed to put action behind her talents instead of being just one of those people to look the other way.
"We're so desensitized to the homeless experience."
“We're so desensitized to the homeless experience to where we can care less as to how we make our judgments, so I felt like I just couldn't be apart of that problem anymore. It's like society just cares to an extent, but if it happens to us, it's a totally different thing. It was literally a slap in the face."
#HappyPeriod volunteer handing a kit to homeless woman.
The first distribution was a success, so much so that it begged the question: What next? Only armed with her background in fashion, Chelsea turned to her mother—who had experience working for a non-profit organization—for help. They came up with the idea of making #HappyPeriod a monthly initiative, seeking donations for money or product from friends, and Chelsea reached out to local women's shelters and homeless shelters for information regarding donations of sanitary items. The response wasn't quite what she expected. At one shelter, an employee informed her that they received more donations for razor blades for men transitioning back into jobs, than they did pads and tampons. When she asked what happened when women arrived to the shelter on their menstrual cycle, the woman gave a nonchalant response that indicated that if the employees had something on them, they would pass it along. But nothing more.
“That was a huge part of my preparation because I made the decision that we're going to do this distribution. I will make the kits," Chelsea says.
Within a couple of months, #HappyPeriod was incorporated, and by September, the organization had expanded into other locations from L.A. to New York. The need to organize meetings and help manage teams across the country required Chelsea to work on her company full-time in October, and she made the decision to sacrifice the savings that she had set aside for a trip to Fiji to ensure that she had enough income to support herself while running her non-profit. She currently takes on random assignments when necessary, not that she's complaining.
“Once December came around I saw this big random success with #HappyPeriod just from me being able to do it full time, so I was like I can't stop now; I just have to keep going. I have to just save and not spend and think of #HappyPeriod as if it's a child—I mean it is my baby. And it's crazy because when you apply it like that you literally just think about that first before you think about yourself."
Chelsea's consistent presence hasn't gone unnoticed amongst the homeless community. “It didn't take no more than two or three months to where I was called the hygiene lady. And then the coolest thing ever was when I realized they were expecting us to come out here once a month."
It's something I too notice when joining Chelsea and her team of volunteers on a Sunday afternoon in April for their monthly distribution in downtown L.A. I don't know what to expect as I drive down Rossmore Avenue past million dollar homes, before crossing Crenshaw and Venice where the grungy neighborhoods stand in juxtaposition to my previous view. I meet with Chelsea at the Fernando Pullum Arts Center, just blocks away from the well-known Leimert Park area, arriving just in time to help Chelsea and a handful of others package together tampons, panty liners and pads into 150 yellow plastic bags before moving over to the next room to help another non-profit catering to the homeless, Hashtag Lunchbag, package their lunches together because they're short on volunteers.
We load up our cars with lunches and period kits and head over to 5th and Crocker street, the coordinates for the famed Skid Row. It's crowded, and before I can even pull the bags out of the back of my car, I'm surrounded by a small group of mostly men reaching their hands out for lunches. I cautiously inform them that I'm carrying the bags for the women, some walk away in disappointment, a few, though, ask if they can take a bag for their wives, girlfriends, or women who don't have the strength to move out of their self-designated areas. “They still love each other, even though they're homeless, there's still love around," Chelsea tells me.
"Even though they're homeless, there's still love around."
We continue unpacking our cars, handing out lunches and yellow bags as fast as if we were giving out winning lottery tickets. Some women rush from dilapidated buildings when word spreads that “the hygiene lady" and her devoted entourage have arrived.
As we walk down the road towards the women's shelter, I see a large line snaking into an open parking lot where another organization is serving lunch. A handful of people, likely from church ministries, are speaking fervently or praying with those waiting in line while a loudspeaker bellows out church music. By the time we reach the women's shelter, most of our bags are gone, but we drop off a box of unpackaged product with the front desk. A woman in a wheelchair rolls up beside me and asks if we also have clothes, I tell her we don't, wishing I had a better excuse before she rolls back into the corner.
Shot of Skid Row
As we near the end of our rounds, some of the same women we've previously handed bags to come up to us. “Bless ya'll, ya'll really heaven sent," they say before walking back to their respective sitting areas.
I ask Chelsea what her thoughts are on purpose now versus when she thought she was operating in her purpose—before she dropped everything and completely reset her life.
“Purpose is just sticking to your soul, your core, what builds you, what burns you, what fuels this whole fire inside."
"Those are the simple things that just make up who you are," she says. “I found happiness within myself instead of just looking for it everywhere else, and then the lady just crossed the street one day. And I followed my instinct. I will be honest, for days I couldn't sleep because I was just thinking about it too hard. I would just wake up and get on the computer and do research, and it was driving me. So I paid attention to that."
Her leap of faith—her vision of spreading #HappyPeriod to homeless populations across the country—has not just changed her life, but the lives of the many women and even transgender persons who are often overlooked and forgotten in a world where many see selfishness instead of selflessness as a form of survival.
It's just the beginning of a discussion to a greater issue, but one that Chelsea is fearlessly tackling—this time with purpose.